AUGUSTA — Maine energy regulators are recommending a $150,000 fine against Summit Natural Gas of Maine after an investigation found the company damaged sewer lines in 25 places, most of them in Augusta and Gardiner.

In a notice issued to Summit on Friday, the Maine Public Utilities Commission said while installing gas mains, the company failed to locate existing utility lines underground and laid their lines too close to them in another 26 locations. A PUC inspection found damage to sewer lines in 13 places in Augusta, eight in Gardiner, three in Yarmouth and one in Cumberland. The lines were installed with trenchless, horizontal drilling technology, and in most cases, issues weren’t discovered until months after installation.

The PUC said the most serious incident was in Gardiner, where a plumber attempted to clear a sewer line blockage on School Street with a device that eroded half of an inactive natural gas main installed through the line.

If it were active, “the results may have been disastrous,” wrote Gary Kenny, gas safety manager for the PUC. If the natural gas line were ever punctured, that gas could move through the sewer line to a home, where it could be ignited in a basement and cause an explosion, said Derek Davidson, head of the PUC’s consumer assistance division.

Since June, the PUC said Summit has put cameras down sewer lines near their network before gas is introduced to ensure lines aren’t punctured and hasn’t moved forward to energize lines without the PUC, Davidson said.

In a statement, Stacey Fitts, Summit’s director of governmental and regulatory affairs, said the company has communicated with its contractors to do that, and it “takes this matter very seriously and is working closely” with the PUC, which said Summit has been responsive in fixing damaged lines.

Advertisement

“They’ve been taking the steps we’ve been asking them to take,” said Harry Lanphear, a PUC spokesman.

Along with a fine, Kenny asks in the notice that Summit dig up and inspect all utility lines around their pipeline projects to ensure lines were properly installed. It recommended programs to train employees and make property owners, plumbers and others who could clear sewer blockages aware of potential danger around lines.

Now, Summit could accept the fine or request a conference with the PUC to mediate the commission’s proposed action, Lanphear said.

The affected cities and towns in Kennebec and Cumberland counties were included in Summit’s massive natural gas expansion in two regions of Maine that has signed hundreds of customers with the promise of saving big money on energy. However, the company’s entry into the Kennebec Valley has been dogged by issues, including reported cost-shifting to local utility districts.

Earlier this year, it completed its 68-mile, $350-million backbone from Gardiner to Madison. Since then, the company has focused on building auxiliary lines to serve residential customers in the area.

In May, Summit also began building a network in the Portland suburbs of Cumberland, Yarmouth and Falmouth, an investment it has pegged at $42 million.

Advertisement

The rapid arrival of natural gas lines stretched utility districts in the area. In Augusta, the water and sewer district responded to nearly 3,000 requests to mark underground lines — about five times more than the year before. In Hallowell, water rates have risen 20 percent to cover the costs of monitoring new construction.

Doug Clark, director of wastewater and public works in Gardiner, said while his district has dealt with “a flurry” of punctured lines this year, he has been “pretty satisfied” with Summit’s response, saying once it is proven that the company damaged lines, it fixes the problem promptly.

“It’s the cost of getting gas to run into Gardiner,” he said.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.