Summit Natural Gas of Maine will temporarily suspend service to its customers in the Waterville area as it inspects equipment believed to have been improperly installed by one if its contractors.

Starting this week, the company will start examining 400 electrofusion tees installed at residences and businesses in Waterville, Fairfield and Madison, and natural gas will be shut off for up to 12 hours to replace the tees. The tees attach service lines for individual customers to the main gas line.

According to Summit communications manager Tammy Poissonnier, the company has known about the problem since November but decided to wait to start work until the spring, when natural gas service interruption would be less disruptive. The company does not expect to replace all 400 tees, Poissonnier said.

Summit’s action was prompted by a Maine Public Utilities Commission investigation into tee installation in the Augusta area that violated commission regulations, according to documents filed with the agency. The fact that there were mirror violations by two different Summit subcontractors has raised concerns about the gas company’s oversight.

“I think it is safe to say that we have overall concerns with their quality assurance and quality control plans,” Harry Lanphear, PUC director of administrative services, said Monday.

Summit is facing $30,000 in fines from violations relating to tee installation in Augusta and Hallowell, and more penalties could be levied if the upcoming inspections find more problems, Lanphear said.

In 2013, Summit completed a 68-mile gas pipeline from Pittston to Madison in central Maine, but has run into delays and problems with regulators and contractors as it spearheads the largest gas distribution project in Maine’s history. In December, Summit agreed to pay $25,000 in fines for a series of safety violations in Augusta, Gardiner, Madison and Waterville. The company is also facing a $150,000 penalty for damaging sewer lines in Augusta and Gardiner. A resolution to that case and the electrofusion tee violations in Hallowell and Augusta are pending.

Summit has also been forced to pay back customers for delays and installation problems. In February it agreed to pay $100,000 in reimbursements to Kennebec Valley customers for delayed service. Last November it said it would pay back more than 100 customers in Cumberland who lost deposits for natural gas conversion to a contractor who went out of business.

In a statement Monday, Summit President Michael Tanchuk called the electrofusion tees installation problems “unacceptable.”

“We are no longer allowing contractors to use this equipment installation method and have greatly increased the number of inspections performed on this type of installation to ensure greater oversight,” Tanchuk said.

Although Summit said Monday that there is no immediate safety issue, Lanphear cautioned that incorrectly installed equipment could have serious consequences. “In this case, if one of those tees was leaking gas in a significant amount, it can create potentially a serious issue,” Lanphear said.

CONTRACTOR ISSUES

The issues with electrofusion tees started last July, when the PUC issued a notice of probable violation to Summit about tees that had failed in Hallowell and Augusta. PUC investigators determined that the equipment was installed by unqualified employees from Tetra Tech, a national construction management firm with an office in Portland, and required Summit to remedy the issues and take steps to prevent further problems, including making sure the company uses qualified contractors.

In later meetings, PUC staff directed the company to inspect electrofusion tees in other locations to determine if there were similar violations, according to Lanphear.

Early tests showed tees installed by CCB Inc., a construction company from Westbrook, were also installed incorrectly, he said.

Tom Donnelly, director of business development at CCB, said Monday that he believed the company was still working with Summit, but did not have further comment.

The Maine PUC’s Gas Safety Program has previously concluded that Summit committed numerous violations during construction activity while working in Augusta, Gardiner, Madison and Waterville in 2013. Among other things, workers from Tetra Tech and CCB Inc. were seen fusing plastic pipe, although they later were found not to be qualified for that task. The PUC said Summit didn’t maintain adequate records or conduct adequate evaluation of worker qualifications.

In September, Tetra Tech sued Summit in federal court for breach of contract. The suit alleges that Summit underestimated the project’s budget and is refusing to pay for $3.6 million worth of extra work that Tetra Tech performed to get the job done. Summit, in its counter suit, claims that Tetra Tech broke the contract by hiring unqualified workers.

The recent trouble with electrofusion tees in the Waterville area was reported Dec. 18, when Summit informed the PUC that a tee had been blown off the main line on Lawrence Street in Fairfield as gas was being introduced into the pipe. The next day a tee was found to be leaking when a part of the main was tested in Waterville, according to a letter to the company by Gary Kenny, Gas Safety Program manager for the PUC.

In his letter, Kenny required Summit to file weekly reports updating the PUC on its progress examining and replacing tees installed by CCB. Because tees were still failing “due to workmanship issues,” it was clear that contractor training and qualification required by the PUC and Summit’s own construction inspection efforts “have been ineffective,” Kenny wrote.

INSPECTION CHANGES

In a January letter to the PUC, Keith Lincoln, Summit’s senior operations director, said the company had found one tee improperly installed by a CCB crew during initial inspections, but “had not picked up on any systemic problem with CCB’s installation overall until the failure of the Lawrence Avenue tee.

“Since that time, we have taken several steps including stop work orders and crew dismissals to ensure that those involved in that installation did not continue on the project,” Lincoln wrote.

The company is also modifying its inspection process for the 2015 construction season by adding more staff and streamlining its inspection requirements, Lincoln added.

“We are also in the process of re-evaluating our contractor base,” he said.

Once work is complete and a customer’s gas line connection has been examined, the company will need to re-light each customer’s natural gas equipment. The company will mail information about the equipment replacement to customers and call them the day before the work is scheduled to start, according to the company’s release.

Summit officials said the company conducts leak tests every 75 days and has conducted surveys even more frequently in the areas where electrofusion tees need to be replaced.

Meanwhile, the PUC is planning spot checks on Summit’s work, but Lanphear said the expensive process of inspecting each tee shows the company is taking the issue seriously.

Fairfield Town Manager Joshua Reny said Monday he was comforted to know Summit is being proactive in making sure its customers are safe. Almost all of Fairfield’s town buildings are now connected to Summit’s gas line, and so far Reny has been pleased with the service.

Although he was told earlier this year that Summit might do work on the tees, Reny said he was unaware that it would mean temporarily suspending service. The municipal buildings only use natural gas for heat, so as long as it is a warm day when the company makes its inspection and repair, it shouldn’t disrupt town operations, he said.

“It is better that it’s happening now and not in January or February,” Reny said.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

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