AUGUSTA — Summit Natural Gas could face a stiff penalty following an underground natural gas leak in February that forced the evacuation of buildings at a Western Avenue shopping plaza.

The gas safety staff at the Maine Public Utilities Commission is recommending Summit pay $250,000 and noted in its finding that the incident could have “caused multiple fatalities.”

In setting that recommendation in its Notice of Probable Violation, the staff took into consideration several factors, including the gravity of the violation, the company’s history of prior offenses and any good faith by the company to achieve compliance.

Attempts to reach Summit Natural Gas were unsuccessful Tuesday.

In investigating the incident, the PUC’s Gas Safety staff found that Summit had failed to maintain the required clearance from other utility facilities.

“These violations are extremely serious given the potential consequences,” the notice reads. “The failure to excavate or otherwise protect the underground electrical lines resulted in the migration of gas through large portions of the area surrounding the leak. In some locations, gas had concentrated into an explosive mixture of gas and air, creating an immediate and extremely serious threat to life and safety.

“Had the gas continued its migration, and entered a nearby building — for example, the Applebee’s restaurant — and ignited, the resulting damage could have been catastrophic and caused multiple fatalities.”

At the time, Augusta Deputy Fire Chief David Groder described the gas leak incident as “probably the largest scale I’ve seen in the area.” Also in February, Keith Lincoln, director of operations for Summit Natural Gas, said in a statement that the company staff was able to find the source of the leak quickly, secure it and repair it.

The 2-inch gas main had been installed in mid-November 2014 by ElectriCom Utility Construction using trenchless technology. An investigation found that at least one of the electrical conductors in one of the conduits apparently was damaged. The arcing that resulted burned through the plastic wall of the gas main, causing the leak.

In addition to paying the recommended penalty, the gas safety staff is requiring that Summit Natural Gas verify that no other underground electrical or propane infrastructure was damaged. It also wants the company to be sure there is adequate separation at all locations where trenchless technology was used to install mains by using the services of an experienced independent line contractor.

In its required written response to the recommendation, Summit officials requested an informal conference, which was scheduled for April 7.

A spokesperson from the PUC did not return a call late Tuesday afternoon seeking the results of that conference.

Summit Natural Gas was under orders from the Public Utilities Commission to inspect and replace equipment that had been installed incorrectly on its distribution network in both Augusta and Waterville. The deadline for that work to be completed was Dec. 31.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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