The state Public Utility Commission last week adopted new leak-detection guidelines that, while not as strict as requirements it proposed in November, would make monitoring more frequent during winter months.
The changes, customized for each utility, are aimed at improving pipeline safety and preventing explosions like the one that killed five people on N. 13th Street in Allentown. The Feb. 9 blast remains under investigation.
The company-specific cold-weather "frost patrol" leak-detection requirements will improve safety measures without overburdening customers' pocketbooks, said Jennifer Kocher, a PUC spokeswoman.
"We have a responsibility to balance the safety of customers with reasonable rates," Kocher said. "All of this would have been recovered from consumers."
Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski scoffed at the notion that UGI couldn't afford to adhere to stricter standards.
"I would encourage them to push for even stronger and stricter regulations," Pawlowski said. "I would hope the gas companies would look past this insignificant cost when it comes to overall lives that would be saved. They had the highest dividend they posted in their 30 years of operation. This whole argument that it has to be passed on to the customer is ridiculous."
Cold-weather leak patrols are undertaken because ground freezes can put stress on inflexible cast-iron pipes and increase the chance of breaks.
In a statement responding to the new guidelines, UGI said it is already doing more than required by federal pipeline safety regulations and worked with the PUC to develop stronger leak-detection practices.
"UGI proposed enhancements to its pre-existing winter survey procedures that increase the frequency and duration of its surveying over pre-existing levels," spokesman Dan Adamo said in an email. "The commission has accepted that proposal with refinements the company finds acceptable."
UGI will be required to survey all cast-iron distribution lines every two weeks between Jan. 1 and March 31; conduct an annual survey of all unprotected metallic service lines; and implement a "special business/urban area" leak survey that would involve leak-detection teams on foot.
Adamo said UGI will have its first cast-iron lines survey completed by Jan. 3. The urban area survey -- conducted between Nov. 1 and March 31 -- would initially focus on "mains based upon: proximity to buildings, wall-to-wall paving, amount and classification of open and repaired leaks, main material" and whether they are protected by anti-corrosion measures.
The order also directs UGI to maintain a log of all leaks detected and repaired. UGI estimates the enhanced monitoring will cost about $1 million a year across its three gas utilities: UGI Utilities, UGI Central Penn Gas and UGI Penn Natural Gas.
UGI offered to make the changes in its formal response to the initial statewide guidelines.
In that response, UGI objected to the blanket requirements, saying compliance would have cost the utility $5.7 million a year to meet, including the need to purchase 125 pieces of leak-detection equipment.
"The UGI [companies] currently have neither the manpower nor equipment available to undertake such tasks within any reasonable period of time," UGI attorneys wrote. "The UGI [companies'] initial estimate is that it would have to hire or contract for 135 additional personnel to perform the surveys with the frequency suggested by the Nov. 10 order."
The company objected, for example, to a requirement that the frost patrols be conducted starting Nov. 1 and extend until April 30, saying that temperatures in much of that period don't merit them.
UGI Utilities maintains 387 miles of cast iron and 395 miles of unprotected steel pipelines, according to the commission's frost patrol order. Counting two other Pennsylvania gas utilities operated by UGI, the company has a total of 527 miles of cast-iron distribution lines.