Failing the Smell Test

Regulators don't want a judge to tell Laclede Gas to fix corroding gas lines

Nov 21, 2001 at 4:00 am
Laclede Gas has spent years telling people, "If you smell gas, call." So Charlene Brandes called.

The natural-gas odor was so strong outside her Creve Coeur townhouse in September, Brandes says, concerned neighbors were knocking on her door. She called Laclede Gas repeatedly, but the utility didn't send anybody to fix the leaks. After almost a month of calling, Brandes set aside a Friday night in early October, calling the utility over and over. "We complained and complained," she says. Laclede Gas finally sent an inspector the next day.

That Saturday, Brandes followed the inspector around while he tested the ground. "Oh, this is a hot spot," he'd say as his equipment showed gas concentrations as high as 97 percent. The leaks were really bad, he told her -- and his clear concern led her to assume that repair crews would be dispatched immediately. When no one showed up, Brandes called Laclede Gas to find out why. She says she was told that her "site wasn't a high priority." Upset, Brandes called a relative of a Laclede Gas employee and asked him to intercede. On Sunday, yet another inspector arrived and promptly repeated the tests. On Monday, three crews arrived and began replacing lines. They told Brandes the lines were badly corroded.

Records show corroded gas lines aren't all that unusual in older areas of the city and county. Beginning in the 1960s and up until 1989, Laclede Gas installed nearly 80,000 direct-buried copper service lines. But as early as 1971, Laclede Gas began noticing that those lines were leaking. In 1981, a Laclede Gas employee prepared a report that concluded that because of corrosion, the life expectancy of the lines was about 10 years. The report also predicted that corrosion failures would reach 400 to 800 a year by 1991.

Even though its own internal reports questioned the safety of the lines, Laclede Gas has only replaced a small percentage of the older lines -- and its meager effort so far has been perfectly acceptable to the regulatory agency that oversees the utility. Last year, the Missouri Public Service Commission and the utility hammered out an agreement that called for replacement of just 8,000 of those lines a year over three years. In an effort to speed up the replacement program, St. Louis lawyer Jeffrey Lowe slapped Laclede Gas with a class-action lawsuit in August. Filed on behalf of area customers with copper service lines, the suit alleges that the old lines are dangerous because they are susceptible to rust and corrosion by road salt. Gas leaks linked to corroded lines have led to the explosion of at least six homes, resulting in serious burn injuries and at least one death. The suit asks Circuit Court Judge Robert H. Dierker Jr. to order Laclede Gas to not only replace all copper service lines but to do it in an expedited manner.

Laclede Gas, of course, is fighting the lawsuit. Late last month, the utility was joined by a key ally when the PSC asked to intervene in the case. The regulatory agency is asking to become a party to the suit, and then, according to pleadings filed in the case, it wants the court to throw out the plaintiffs' demand for an expedited replacement program. The PSC contends that its commissioners, and not the courts, have primary jurisdiction over the "safety and adequacy" of Laclede Gas' service.

The PSC's move appears consistent with its go-slow approach to a public-safety issue. Doug Chisholm, a leading national gas-pipeline-safety expert, this year blasted the commission for its foot-dragging on the replacement program, blaming what he called an unusually close relationship between the utility and its regulators [Dreiling, "What Lies Beneath," June 20].

The PSC's own records show that the commission's gas-safety staff knew about the copper-corrosion problem for years. After a house explosion in 1985, the PSC recommended, but did not require, Laclede Gas to consider replacing the copper service lines. After an explosion in 1989, the PSC asked Laclede Gas to formalize an evaluation of the copper service lines and banned copper lines in all new installations. The PSC again asked Laclede Gas to revise its surveying procedures after a 1990 explosion. When two home explosions occurred within four days of each other in 1998, the PSC opened a special docket in order to give Laclede Gas a chance to re-evaluate the copper-service-line replacements. Almost a year later, and with no real progress on the copper-service-line re-evaluation, another home exploded on Feb. 22, 1999, killing 78-year-old Louis Brown.

Brown was at his Valley Park home when he lit a butane lighter in the home's breezeway. Natural gas had leaked from a copper service line and collected in the breezeway. Three weeks before the explosion, Brown had called the company to complain that gas was coming up in a portion of his yard near the street. An inspector took a "100 percent gas in air reading" from that site and obtained a 2 percent reading near a manhole cover. Laclede Gas repaired the leak in the corner of the yard but failed to check the copper-service-line connection to Brown's home and the manhole leak, nor did it double-check the repair that was made -- even though company procedures required it to do so. Brown's widow and children sued the company, and the utility ultimately settled the case for $8 million.

A year after Brown's death, PSC lawyers and Laclede Gas hammered out their line-replacement agreement. Exactly what the agreement required has been a matter of contention -- even among the regulators who are supposed to be overseeing the utility. Laclede Gas and the manager of the PSC's gas safety staff, Bob Leonberger, told the Riverfront Times in June that the 8,000-lines-a-year agreement would be evaluated after three years. In sworn testimony last year, Dr. Patrick Seamands, the man at Laclede Gas in charge of the replacement program, pointedly said that the utility had not agreed to replace all of the 78,000 remaining lines.

Even though the plain language of the agreement doesn't require that all of the old lines be replaced, PSC lawyer Lera Shemwell last week told the RFT such replacement was the state's "intent" when the agreement was hammered out. Shemwell, who negotiated the agreement, says that after three years, the PSC would "evaluate the effectiveness of the program to determine if it should be accelerated."

Given that the PSC has already entered into a replacement agreement with Laclede Gas -- an agreement that Lowe's lawsuit contends is far too lenient -- the RFT asked PSC general counsel Dana Joyce whether the commission was independent enough to determine whether its own agreement was adequate. "That's within the jurisdiction of the commission," Joyce says. "The commission is the cop, the investigator and the sentencer." If Lowe's clients have information on the safety of the copper lines, Joyce says, they should give that evidence to the PSC; then the agency can decide the best course of action for public safety.

Sheila Lumpe, a member of the commission and a former PSC chairwoman, insists that the state is dedicated to protecting public safety. She and other commissioners participated in at least three closed-door sessions last month to discuss the lawsuit. And on Oct. 18, commissioners asked Leonberger to give them a tutorial on copper service lines and to explain the difference between "steel, soft copper and hard copper lines."

Asked why the commission, which was aware of this problem for years, requested the presentation, Lumpe says, "There were some questions about corrosion and what might be causing the corrosion" of the copper service lines.

Laclede Gas lawyers have filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that only the PSC has the authority to order it to replace its corroding lines. Because customers failed to challenge the agreement before the PSC acted, the utility argues, they don't have the right to complain to a judge that the replacement program is insufficient.

Whether the lawsuit survives depends on Judge Dierker, who is scheduled to hear oral arguments on Nov. 30.