Sept. 23–EXETER — Following more than 80 gas explosions in three Massachusetts communities Sept. 13, the pending Granite Bridge pipeline application is drawing additional public attention.
The proposed 27-mile liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline from Manchester to Stratham to be constructed and maintained by Liberty Utilities is still more than a year away from shovels going into the ground, as Liberty’s application is under review by the state Public Utilities Commission.
John Shore, Liberty Utilities’East Region manager of marketing and communications, said if the application passes the PUC, which would be later this year or early 2019, it would still need to pass the state Site Evaluation Committee, which could take another year before any construction begins.
Shore said it was hard to draw a direct comparison between over-pressurized pipeline systems in Massachusetts that led to the home explosions and the proposed Granite Bridge because it will be a transmission pipeline and not deliver natural gas to residential neighborhoods.
“Liberty Utilities’ natural gas system is completely separate from the Columbia Gas system,” he said. “A problem with the Columbia Gas system will not affect the Liberty system, or the safety of our customers, in any way. Liberty Utilities is closely monitoring the tragic situation in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover and our thoughts are with all those who have been impacted. We sent crews to help assist with the response to the tragic event. The safety of our customers, employees and the public is always our first and highest priority.”
According to reports, the existing low-pressure distribution pipelines owned by Columbia Gas in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover saw its gas flow at 12 times the normal amount of pressure the system was designed to carry. According to reports, the lines in the three towns were carrying natural gas at 6 pounds per square inch (PSI) prior to the explosions, when the system was only constructed to accommodate .5 PSI.
Shore said Granite Bridge would have a maximum pressure level of 950 PSI but would typically operate at 750 psi, which matches the maximum operating pressure of the existing Concord Lateral pipeline in Manchester. He said once constructed, the pipeline would be tested at 150 percent of the maximum allowable operating pressure to ensure sound strength and bonding.
“Transmission pipelines operate at higher pressures that are required to transport natural gas over long distances and have few interconnections with lower pressure distribution systems that serve customers,” Shore said. “Distribution systems are constructed, operated and maintained differently than transmission pipelines, as distribution systems have numerous connections, valves and pressure regulation equipment that provide service to customers and are located in and around town streets.”
Multiple calls to the PUC’s Safety Division asking if the events in northern Massachusetts would influence regulators when considering the Granite Bridge application were not returned.
Shore said to maintain safe operation of the Granite Bridge, Liberty’s distribution system would be monitored 24 hours, seven days a week. He said it would connect to two existing systems through metering stations that can regulate the pipeline pressure to a regular operating level and the metering stations can be controlled remotely at Liberty’s headquarters in Londonderry.
“Liberty is proposing to exceed requirements and construct the Granite Bridge to the highest regulatory standard, there will be pressure and flow monitoring and automatic remote shut-off valves located along the pipe every five miles,” Shore said. “Every pressure regulation station in Liberty’s distribution system that serves customers has telecommunications equipment that provides continuous information regarding flow and pressure. If there is an issue with any pressure regulation station on our distribution system, we will know it immediately and are able to dispatch trained natural gas technicians to the exact location of the issue.”
Gov. Chris Sununu said he believes additional scrutiny would be placed on Liberty by the PUC in the aftermath of the events in Massachusetts.
“Given the tragedy in Lawrence I imagine a lot of folks will want to take a second look at this, and that’s very appropriate thing to do,” Sununu said. “We’ll see where it turns out, I think (Granite Bridge) will be a great resource for the state, but first and foremost, you have to make sure communities are safe; they can trust in the lines. They’ve done (the project) right so far; they’ve presented a very viable plan to the local stakeholders. They’ve taken their time, they’re transparent, they’re showing their numbers, they’re engineering; all that is on the table for discussion already.”
On three separate occasions between March 2016 and August 2017, Liberty Utilities New Hampshire Gas Division agreed to fines outlined in notices of violations issued by the PUC on March 3 and 4, 2016, and July 28, 2017, for amounts of $9,000, $5,000 and $40,500, respectively.
According to the heftiest penalty imposed July 28, 2017, the nine-part violation included Liberty failing to inspect pipeline infrastructure the required number of times in 2015; skipping 2016 inspections altogether in its southern division, failing to include “maps, books, or other documentation of the facilities to be leak surveyed.” Liberty also failed to inspect Class II leaks, which are recognized as non-hazardous at time of detection, but requiring scheduled repair within six months or end of the calendar year, in a timely fashion, among several violations related to operation.
The March 2016 consent decrees signed by Liberty accepts responsibility for violations that included not having emergency power generators operational for at least a full year and overfilling 30,000-gallon propane containers at its Manchester and Nashua facilities, among six total violations.
Shore on Aug. 2 said since the fines were handed down, Liberty Utilities has launched increased training and inspections to better comply with state and federal regulations.
“We operate and maintain over 1,600 miles of natural gas pipe to provide safe and reliable service to over 92,000 customers in New Hampshire,” Shore said previously. “Through this process, our staff identified certain sections of pipe had not been inspected in the required time frame. When we identified this issue we notified the NHPUC Safety Division, conducted the inspections, increased training changes to ensure that the issue would not reoccur.”
Sununu said though he was not familiar with the specifics of the individual penalties, he said regardless of the company’s history operating in the state, safety must be the top concern.
“Whether a company has paid a penalty in the past or not, we’re going to put a lot of scrutiny on these projects to make sure they’re safe,” he said.
Shore said Liberty anticipates state regulators will conduct additional due diligence in the wake of the home explosions in Massachusetts, but he pointed to the fact the pipeline would be buried 48-inches underground and since it was in the Route 101 right-of-way, it reduced the chance of a third-party landscaper or developer damaging the pipeline while excavating.
Shore said Liberty always believed the Granite Bridge would receive a thorough, complete and rigorous review by the state PUC and SEC.
“We are taking every measure to ensure that the Granite Bridge will be designed and maintained to the highest standards,” he said. “Throughout the process safety regulators will be conducting inspections, reviewing our designs and monitoring our construction methods. Liberty Utilities welcomes this oversight, and always strives to achieve the highest level of safety with all our operations.”
Multiple calls this week to ECHO Action, which considers itself New Hampshire’s environmental justice network and opposes the pipeline project, were not returned.
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