Contractors working for Summit Natural Gas of Maine installed pipelines without proper qualifications, after which the company falsified a test to make it seem like the workforce had the required certifications, said officials at Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
Summit agreed to pay a $25,000 fine to resolve a series of safety-violation charges made this year by the PUC.
The settlement, contained in a consent agreement filed Friday, stems from observations last summer. The agency’s gas safety manager had recommended a $100,000 penalty.
Still pending are resolutions to three other probable-violation notices issued by the PUC for work done by Summit or its contractors in the Kennebec Valley and Portland suburbs. One case said Summit installed natural gas mains too close to other underground utilities, such as sewer lines. The agency is recommending a $150,000 fine in that instance.
The pattern of safety violations uncovered by the PUC raises questions about whether pressure to get thousands of customers hooked up to gas as soon as possible is leading Summit to cut corners in building its distribution network, and whether the system is as safe as it should be.
Addressing those concerns, a PUC spokesman said the agency is up to the task of monitoring Summit’s work, and that problem areas identified by the PUC safety staff have undergone reinspection.
“We don’t let gas flow until we are satisfied the system is as safe as it can be,” said Harry Lanphear in a published report.
Natural gas warms 60 percent of American homes, but only 6 percent or so in Maine, where the safety of natural gas pipelines is an evolving issue.
Lanphear said the agency hired a third gas inspector last spring to handle the anticipated workload. The three safety inspectors have spent 237 days in the field so far this year, much of their time devoted to Summit’s unprecedented pipeline expansion. He said Summit has been responsive and has spent “a fair amount of money” to correct deficiencies.
Summit’s director of governmental and regulatory affairs in Maine, Stacey Fitts, defended the company’s safety record and practices. Fitts said only a small number of the 700 workers involved in the project lacked qualifications, and he maintains the company did not have a role in the manipulated testing.
Fitts said the parent company, Summit Utilities of Littleton, CO, operates more than 1,200 miles of pipeline and hasn’t had a major accident in 16 years.
Summit came to Maine in 2012, launching an ambitious $350 million effort to connect 15,000 homes and businesses in the Kennebec Valley within five years. This year, it’s also working in Falmouth, Cumberland and Yarmouth, where it pledged to spend $73 million to hook up 80 percent of the homes.
Summit suffered from delays and contractor problems and the collapse of oil prices, which has temporarily erased the price advantage of natural gas over heating oil.
The Maine PUC operates a Gas Safety Program that seeks to assure that industry activity follows state and federal rules. During a review of personnel qualification records and following observations in the field, the staff concluded that Summit committed numerous violations during construction activity while working in Augusta, Gardiner, Madison and Waterville in 2013.