The investigation into the Greenwood gas explosion in March revealed that state regulators do not track or keep an inventory of all the pipelines supposedly decommissioned by companies such as Puget Sound Energy. That case, and another involving Cascade Natural Gas, raise doubts about records kept by the utilities themselves.
A complaint filed Tuesday by the staff Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission seeks $3.2 million in fines from Puget Sound Energy because it did not properly cap a pipeline that caused the Greenwood blast, did not follow its own plans for decommissioning a line and did not keep accurate records about the pipeline.
The complaint also recommends that the UTC’s board require PSE to identify and correct any other improperly abandoned pipelines that may exist in the company’s system. It’s not clear if PSE has accurate records about such lines. PSE did not respond to questions about its decommissioned lines.
Companies aren’t required to report those details to the UTC, according to agency officials. Because the UTC presumes such lines don’t have gas in them, they’re not a top priority. “We focus on pipes that are in service,” said Joe Subsits, chief engineer for UTC pipeline safety.
PSE serves almost 800,000 gas customers in six counties, through 26,000 miles of pipelines.
Cascade Natural Gas faces an even larger penalty from the UTC — $4 million — for failing to properly keep records for nearly 40 percent of its high-pressure pipelines in Washington state.
UTC and Cascade Natural Gas officials met Wednesday to try and reach a settlement agreement in that case.
Those discussions were not public, and a UTC spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment on them. Reached on Wednesday, Cascade spokesman Mark Hanson declined to comment on the UTC findings. The utility continues to work with UTC on a settlement agreement, he added.
In a formal response to the UTC, Cascade said it recognized the need for improvement but called the proposed penalty excessive.
In their investigative report, UTC staff said Cascade has “demonstrated a lax attitude toward compliance that exposes the public to an unacceptable level of risk.”
In 2013, during three inspections, Cascade was unable to produce all records requested by pipeline-safety inspectors, according to the UTC.
Commissioners later approved an agreement requiring the company to develop a complete compliance plan by August 2015. Cascade failed to meet the deadline, the UTC said.
When Cascade did submit a plan five months later, it didn’t meet the requirements of its agreement with the commission.
In a reply to the UTC in July, Cascade’s lawyers said the company recognized the need for “continuous improvement” in maintaining a safe and reliable system, and the company had created internal mechanisms so it wouldn’t miss deadlines in the future when “unexpected circumstances arise such as illness of key employees.”
Cascade also said its tardiness in providing a compliance plan did not result from a complacent attitude.
The company did admit it identified a list of high-pressure pipelines in Washington where some essential data was missing.
Cascade serves almost 200,000 residential and business customers in 68 Washington communities, from Bremerton to Walla Walla.