• Consumers resumes gas line boring; blast inquiry continues


    CrainsDetroit.com



    Consumers Energy Co. has resumed horizontal boring after a temporary suspension following the Feb. 27 fatal house explosion in Royal Oak.

    Consumers suspended gas line boring for 11 days to reassess its training and operating procedures. Based on an ongoing investigation of the accident -- thought to have been caused by damage to a service line during a nearby boring operation -- Consumers said Friday it has terminated an unspecified number of employees.

    Garrick Rochow, Consumers' vice president of energy delivery for electric and gas transmission, said suspending gas boring allowed the company "to make sure we are doing (boring) in a safe an effective manner."

    Last week, Consumers started to phase in some boring operations. By today, all six to 12 employed and contracted work crews were to be back on their winter schedule, Rochow said. Consumers will make up for the lost time by adding crews and paying overtime, but it is unclear whether that will add to overall costs, he said.

    "I can't get into the scope of the investigation, but it is apparent we had impact to the service line, and obviously we have learned from the event," said Rochow, who also said he couldn't address any specifics before the investigation is completed.

    On Friday, Consumers issued a statement that it has taken disciplinary actions against some employees involved in the gas explosion, including terminations, based on its ongoing investigation.

    The blast killed Daniel Malczynski, 58, who was at his home on Cooper Street. More than 30 other homes were damaged by the explosion, which was heard and felt more than three miles away.

    DTE Energy Co. used the gas line accident to remind employees of precautions that need to be taken regularly, said Bob Richard, DTE's senior vice president of gas operations.

    "We've hired roughly 100 people in the last two years to work 100 percent in pipeline safety for gas lines," said Richard, who noted that they are involved in moving residential meters from inside to outside homes and repairing and replacing gas mains.

    DTE replaced 60 miles of gas mains last year and is on track to replace 70 miles this year, Richard said. DTE plans to replace 50,000 meters in 2012-13, he said.

    Over the past three years, Rochow said, Consumers has doubled the amount of annual spending on distribution line improvements to $120 million.

    "We have replaced lots of pipe, far beyond federal requirements, because we didn't feel that was sufficient to address the risks and customer safety," Rochow said.

    Minutes after learning about the explosion, Consumers' Incident Command Structure reacted to assess the damage in the field and coordinate a response back at the corporate office, Rochow said.

    "With a larger incident, we have the person in charge at the event to make sure the area is secure, things are not getting worse and all precautions are taken, and an officer in charge (at corporate) to look at the bigger picture," he said.

    Rochow said the team regularly practices emergency drills, mostly for weather-related incidents but also for gas explosions.

    "Once we made sure the area was safe, we moved to other activities and then looked at the cause," Rochow said. "We then decided to communicate with the public what we knew."

    On Feb. 28, the day after the accident, Consumers assumed responsibility for the explosion.

    DTE, Consumers and the other gas suppliers are required by state and federal law to meet a number of safety, quality and employee training standards, including more than 50 hours of recertification training each year, officials said. The Michigan Public Service Commission also conducts 60 surprise audits of company crews each year to ensure they are following rules.

    But officials of Consumers and DTE could not recall whether a similar incident has happened with their companies in recent memory. Hundreds if not thousands of gas lines are nicked or damaged each year, primarily by individuals or companies failing to call hotline 811 for information on the location of underground utility lines before they dig.

    "It is rare that a utility hits its own gas line and causes an explosion," said Judy Palnau, the PSC's media relations director. "It hasn't happened in the last several years."

    Rochow said more than half of gas explosions or accidents are caused by residents and private contractors digging in areas without checking on gas, water, cable telephone or other utility lines.

    Other gas line problems occur after meters are tampered with or when pipelines spring leaks, he said.

    "If you see something that looks odd, report it," Richard said. "If you smell something like rotten eggs, it could be a gas leak. We will come out in minutes."

    Every April, Michigan's Legislature or governor announces "Safe Digging Month" to remind individuals and companies to call the 811 information hotline before digging. In 1970, the Miss Dig System Inc., now a national model, was created by Oakland County and utility companies to provide information and education on underground utility-line safety.

    In the coming months, the PSC's staff will complete its investigation on the Royal Oak gas explosion and issue a report with recommendations, Palnau said.

    "The commission sent staff to investigate immediately, which is normal," he said. "They have been on site getting information, interviewing employees and looking at operations and maintenance records."

    Typically, the commission's report is not made public, but Palnau said the report could be released if the commission issues an order or deems it in the public's interest.