AUGUSTA — Natural gas’ 2013 entrée into the Kennebec Valley forced the capital city’s utility district to respond to nearly 3,000 requests to mark existing utility lines in the ground, about five times more than the year before.

And that’s just one example of the strain the area’s newest utility has put on municipalities and water districts that are understaffed and were unprepared for the unprecedented push toward natural gas.

Summit Natural Gas of Maine and Maine Natural Gas announced the start of pipeline construction in the first half of last year, with contractors working at a furious pace, often snarling traffic across the region, to complete the main pieces of the two networks.

The payoff, companies and public officials said, would be in the fuel.

Companies touted 30 to 50 percent savings on heating costs compared to oil, competing to sign up Augusta businesses. Summit built a far-reaching network, stretching from Pittston to Madison, while Maine Natural Gas focused more on the Augusta area.

But utility officials say there will be, and has been, cost associated with natural gas’ rapid expansion to the region.

Water districts spent much of 2013 monitoring quick-developing natural gas installation projects, delaying much of their own maintenance projects to respond to calls to mark the sites of existing utility lines.

“They’ve been running and we’ve been chasing them ever since,” said Paul Gray, superintendent of the Gardiner Water District.

Brian Tarbuck, general manager of the Greater Augusta Utility District, said employees were called to review dig sites more than 2,900 times in 2013, nearly five times more than the 612 requests it got in 2012, leading the district to hire a second employee to handle requests.

The Maine Water Utilities Association, an advocacy group for districts, is considering drafting proposed state legislation that would widen the horizontal distance between natural gas and other utilities in the ground, which he said was motivated by lines in central Maine coming too close for districts’ comfort.

“We don’t go looking for problems,” said Jeffrey McNelly, the association’s executive director, “but this caught us kind of unawares.”

Michael Duguay, Summit’s director of business development, said he realizes utilities are dealing with new challenges, but the benefits will outweigh costs.

“For some people, just having another utility in the ground is going to be too much,” he said. “The public way is a public resource and that goes to the taxpayer. I think they have the right to lower fuel costs.”

Watching the roads

The projects were made possible with road-opening permits, granted by the state and municipalities.

Augusta issued 170, and Lesley Jones, the public works director, said about half of her and her street superintendent’s time in 2013 was spent on permitting, compared to a small share of time in normal years.

“It’s the cost of progress,” she said. “We’re happy to have gas, but it was a hard year for us and the Greater Augusta Utility District.”

The Maine Department of Transportation regulates permitting state roads, while cities and towns manage their roads. The state also sets standards for natural gas pipelines’ proximity to other utilities.

Natural gas lines must be at least a foot horizontally from other utilities and on state roads, the transportation department requires three-foot separation, said Harry Lanphear, spokesman for the Maine Public Utilities Commission, an industry regulator.

Lanphear said his eight-employee electric and gas division, mostly comprised of lawyers and analysts, conducts financial investigations of utilities. Another five employees work on gas safety, conducting field investigations, evaluating process and working to ensure compliance with laws and rules.

He said during pipeline construction, employees are in the field watching crews “virtually every day.” It also enforces Maine’s dig safe laws, with the ability to penalize contractors who violate the law.

There were violations on the Summit and Maine Natural Gas projects, but the scope of those are unclear, as violations are issued to contractors and it is often unclear as to whether they happened during natural gas installation.

Derek Davidson, director of the PUC’s consumer assistance division, said overall, digging violations haven’t been a major problem during central Maine’s gas ramp-up.

Still, the impact of natural gas construction looms proportionally as large, or larger, in smaller cities and towns.

Dennis Kinney, superintendent of the Hallowell Water District, said the threat of excavators hitting the infrastructure he manages has led him to strive to put somebody on scene whenever gas crews are working around the water district’s infrastructure.

He is his district’s only full-time employee, on a salary.

“That guy is me,” he said.

Work requests spike

Tarbuck said after some gas-related utility strikes, his district found that the geographic information system wasn’t adequate for work around gas, so it hired another technician to improve map quality. He also hired another person to keep up with dig safe requests.

But 40 people work at that district, leaving a small number to bear the brunt of natural gas’ demands, while allowing the district to continue normal maintenance work.

Both Summit and Maine Natural Gas are expected shift their focus to building lines to residential customers’ homes in 2014 and years beyond, so water districts’ workloads should remain high.

In Hallowell, Kinney has to keep up, and he said he isn’t and probably won’t anytime soon. He said he had approximately 150 requests last year to locate his lines, and in a normal year, he would have between 20 and 30.

Kinney said normal district maintenance has been stalled by watching construction sites and managing requests, and when he has left sites, Summit crews have brought pipes closer to the district’s mains.

“How do you run a water district like that?” he said.

Jeffrey LaCasse, general manager of the Waterville-area Kennebec Water District, said there have been cases where gas lines have gotten “closer than we feel comfortable with” to their utilities, sometimes within three feet horizontally.

Gray, of the Gardiner Water District, said the eight-employee district’s maintenance work has mostly stalled too. The district also covers Randolph, where he said contractors working for Summit hit existing utilities eight times while installing steel pipe along Route 9 in the fall.

Four times, Gray said, the Gardiner district was at fault. The other four times, contractors made mistakes. The construction required Gray to assign one employee to work nights with construction crews to speed up response times to marking requests.

Some of the cost will be ongoing: Natural gas pipes are typically buried three or four feet underground, while water lines in Maine are five to seven feet deep to guard against freezing.

District heads said in the future, digging around gas lines to get at the water or stormwater mains below will be more difficult and costly. Natural gas is highly explosive, and explosions can happen if gas leaks from a line and is exposed to an ignition source.

It’s too early to tell in most places if utility ratepayers will see increases because of natural gas work, but most believe it could have an indirect effect over the years.

Will it be worth it?

The ramp-up was fast, and some question the process that got the region here.

Gray said in Gardiner, construction came with little warning. Lacasse said municipalities were under political pressure to get gas delivered, and all district heads said natural gas will likely be a net positive for the community.

But Kinney criticized Hallowell officials for lack of oversight over construction, ignoring pieces of its road permitting ordinance to allow Summit to work. For example, city law says road permits can’t be issued if the work is set to go beyond Nov. 1.

In an email last year to Michael Starn, the city manager, Kinney wrote that lack of oversight by the city has burdened the district with supervision duty.

“We all have to share that corridor, but the city is the one who controls how that corridor is shared,” he said. “The city has just decided, ‘We’re not going to look at that.'”

As for the timeframe, Starn said the city council wanted Summit to be able to finish its work for the year, which included a plan to hook up city buildings to natural gas.

Still, he conceded that Hallowell could have been better prepared for the build-out and “could have had our road-opening permit better tailored to this, but we didn’t foresee it having such an impact this way.”

But Starn also said he was hoping for a less chaotic 2013, and that delays by Summit, in response and in construction, made it difficult for city officials.

“They weren’t as organized as they should have been, so we were waiting and waiting and waiting for someone to do a walk-through to show where the road openings would be and a lot of that was done with modifications after the fact,” he said. “We did the best we could with what we had.”

Duguay and Mike Minkos, Summit’s president, showed up at a Hallowell City Council meeting in December, saying mistakes had been made and vowing better communication with officials in the future.

William Bridgeo, Augusta’s city manager, said when considering natural gas, it’s important to keep your eye on the prize.

“The prize is the millions of dollars in energy savings every year that this region will now benefit from by virtue of the presence of both companies,” he said.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652[email protected]Twitter: @mikeshepherdme