Pennsylvania is laced with 11,000 miles of aging gas pipelines like the one implicated in the deadly Feb. 9 explosion in Allentown because legislators, regulators and gas companies haven't agreed on how to accelerate pipeline replacement -- a reform that Georgia, Ohio and other states figured out years ago.
Bills enabling utilities to charge a special fee to finance pipeline replacement have died repeatedly in Harrisburg, leaving companies such as UGI Corp. to follow their own plans to replace old pipe at a pace that will take decades to complete.
"In the case of Pennsylvania, there is a real question about the safety of gas lines mainly because there are a lot of very old, cast-iron and bare-steel pipe in the ground," said Rick Kessler, vice president of the watchdog safety group Pipeline Safety Trust. "Some utilities around the country have moved aggressively on replacing these types of older pipe, but in some areas, utilities are only replacing a very small percentage of these pipes each year."
Some Pennsylvania gas utilities have among the highest percentages of cast-iron pipe in the country. Among the 148 gas companies nationwide with at least 1,000 miles of pipeline, two of UGI's three divisions are in the top 20 percent for cast-iron pipe, according to the most recent federal records. UGI Utilities, which serves the Lehigh Valley, is 26th on the list with 400 miles -- 7.5 percent -- of its pipelines in cast-iron. PGW in Philadelphia tops the list with more than half of its pipelines in cast-iron.
Although regulators have been urging gas companies to replace cast-iron and bare-steel pipelines, UGI hasn't seen the need to speed up its replacement program, said Robert Beard, the company's vice president of marketing, rates and gas.
UGI has replaced 300 miles of lines since 1970 and at the current rate, will spend the next 40 years replacing old lines. UGI has funded its pipe-replacement program by adding customers and being choosy about which pipelines it digs up, not by seeking a rate increase.
"One of the reasons that UGI has been able to stay out of rate-case proceedings since  is that we have been good at being efficient and effective operators," Beard said. "Part of being good is identifying those pipe segments that are most in need of replacement and to not replace pipe segments that should not be replaced."
The cracked pipe that was dug up five days after the explosion at 13th and Allen streets was not at the top of the company's replacement priority list, Beard said. Tests to determine what role the pipe may have played in the blast that killed five people and led to the demolition of eight houses have not been completed.
UGI Corp., which made a profit of $261 million in 2010, spends $20 million a year upgrading its facilities, according to a company spokesman.
Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, said she believes UGI and other gas companies should spend more.
"In the past, these pipes should have been replaced on a routine basis by UGI. They chose not to, and now, the consumers are going to have to pay for it. ... I don't want the full burden placed on the ratepayer, because that is just wrong," said Boscola, minority chairwoman of the Senate Consumer Affairs and Professional Licensure Committee.
In Georgia, it took gas wafting through the streets of the capital for the state to force gas companies to speed up the replacement process.
In the late 1990s, gas from leaking pipelines seeped to the street level in front of the state Public Service Commission offices in Atlanta. Commissioner Stan Wise said once regulators could smell the odor of gas, they knew it was time to force the local gas utility to move more quickly.
"I think what broke the camel's back was, we knew the gas was leaking and there were these test bores drilled up and down the sidewalk and through those test holes, you could smell the mercaptan," Wise said, referring to the gas additive that creates the odor.
The state's main gas utility, Atlanta Gas Light, was in the process of replacing more than 2,000 miles of old cast-iron and bare-steel pipeline with plastic and steel pipe, but at a snail's pace.
"We were on about an 80-year replacement program," said Rick Lonn, Atlanta Gas Light's director of regulatory compliance.
That didn't sit well with the commission and in 1997 it ordered the utility to replace 2,300 miles of old pipeline in 10 years. To finance the work, it allowed Atlanta Gas Light to assess a charge that now is up to $1.95 a month for residential customers. Regulators pushed back the deadline for completion to 2013 as they added more pipeline to the replacement program. Lonn said that was no problem -- all of its cast-iron lines have been replaced and in two years, the last of the bare-steel pipes will be gone, too.
By the deadline, Atlanta Gas Light will have replaced an average of 180 miles a year for 15 years.
"I got to give a lot of credit to the commission," he added. "They didn't need an incident to drive them there."
But the commission did need political courage, Wise said.