13 investigation uncovers dozens of natural gas leaks

13 investigation uncovers dozens of natural gas leaks story image

PORTLAND (WGME) - A CBS 13 investigation uncovers dozens of underground natural gas leaks in the Portland area. Our investigation comes two weeks after a natural gas leak forced people to evacuate several buildings in Portland's Bayside neighborhood.

We're digging into documents and reports filed with state regulators to fully understand the scope of the leaks. Gas utility companies are required to file a monthly leak report with the Public Utilities Commission. The most recent one from Unitil shows the company has a backlog of 75 leaks waiting to be fixed.

Fire crews blame the leak on March 5 in Portland on an old, cast iron underground pipe. A report filed with the Public Utilities Commission shows Unitil has more than 500 miles of main in the state. More than 10% of the pipeline is cast iron, installed before 1940. Investigators say cast iron pipes are linked to a deadly explosion in New York's East Harlem neighborhood in March.

We learned every month Unitil is dealing with hazardous gas leaks in Maine, in part because of Portland's aging pipeline. A monthly leak report shows in March, Unitil had 3 hazardous gas leaks. All were repaired immediately, as required. But the report also shows there are 4 potentially hazardous and 71 non-hazardous leaks that haven't been fixed, classified as Class II and Class III.

"These are leaks on a much, much smaller level we're able to detect them with really high end well detecting equipment. We're able to monitor them, and we're scheduling those repairs over a period of time," Alec O'Meara with Unitil said.

In an email to CBS 13, O'Meara said "Physical locations of leaks is not actually part of public documents."

"Why not tell people the locations of those leaks?" CBS 13's Jon Chrisos asked.

"As a utility we are highly regulated by the state of Maine. We follow the state of Maine practices regarding the reports we file, and the public information regarding our operations is available through the state of Maine," O'Meara said.

The PUC explained, the Commission in most cases does not track, or ask for, non-hazardous leak locations, unless they're reported by the public. The PUC did send us publicly reported gas odors and leaks, but we still don't know the leak locations found and reported by Unitil.

Unitil is also aggressively managing leaks and planning for the future by upgrading aging pipes in the greater Portland area.

"We're replacing 100 miles of pipe in the Portland area; we're taking out cast iron and bare steel and replacing it with plastic piping," O'Meara added.

Unitil is now in year 4 of its 14-year pipeline replacement project. So far, the utility says it's upgraded more than 11 miles of pipe. We also checked out the other natural gas distributors in our area: Maine Natural Gas and Summit Natural Gas. Those companies have newer lines outside of Portland and had no unrepaired leaks to report.

13 investigation uncovers dozens of natural gas leaks
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