Thursday, December 24, 2015

Company to be billed for Saturday's gas emergency in Keene, official says

By Meghan Foley Sentinel Staff
Liberty Utilities is on the hook to pay for the massive emergency response to a city-wide gas problem in Keene Saturday, according to the city’s emergency management director. Meanwhile, some opponents of a proposed natural gas pipeline through the area said this weekend’s incident reinforces their concerns about that project’s safety.
After power went out at the company’s Keene distribution center, equipment that mixes propane with air failed, sending pure propane to customers in the city and the potential for carbon monoxide to be released when burned. A backup system at the Emerald Street center also failed.
City officials have determined the situation, which brought brought fire departments from across New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont to the city, was a hazardous-materials incident, said Kurt D. Blomquist, Keene’s emergency management director and public works director.
According to state statute, the business at fault for such an incident pays for it, he said.
Keene officials will spend the next week gathering costs associated with the emergency response, including any overtime incurred by firefighters, emergency medical services personnel and city staff, he said.
He declined to venture an estimate yet of what that cost might be.
Agencies from other communities that responded to the city for the incident are also eligible for reimbursement, he said.
That included 64 fire and emergency medical services departments and 12 local, regional, state and private agencies, according to a news release Monday from Keene Fire Chief Mark F. Howard.
Liberty Utilities also brought in 81 employees, Howard wrote.
The situation lasted for about 15 hours.
Both Liberty Utilities and the N.H. Public Utilities Commission are conducting separate investigations into what happened Saturday to cause the imbalance between air and propane mixture pumped through Liberty Utilities’ distribution system.
Four people were taken to Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene, and more than 1,000 homes and businesses were checked for carbon monoxide exposure throughout the day Saturday and into early Sunday morning. The toxic chemical is odorless, colorless and tasteless, and can be deadly if people experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning aren’t treated right away.
Liberty Utilities has 1,220 customers in Keene, according to a notice from the N.H. Public Utilities Commission Monday, which announced the agency’s investigation into the incident.
The company’s distribution system’s facility lost power at 8:50 a.m., but its backup power source didn’t come online, Liberty Utilities and city officials have said.
Eversource spokesman Martin Murray said Monday that the power outage affected about 1,072 customers in Keene, and power was restored by about 9:30 a.m.
In response to questions about why the backup power system failed, how it was supposed to work, if Saturday’s incident exposed any vulnerabilities in the system, and, if so, how those would be addressed, Liberty Utilities spokesman John Shore said they will be examined during the company’s investigation.
The investigation will be “very thorough,” and include members of the company’s engineering and operations departments, and its equipment vendors, he said.
“We will work closely with the PUC throughout the process,” he said.
While Saturday’s incident was centered in Keene, it’s made some residents living in towns south of the Elm City uneasy about a natural gas pipeline proposed by the Kinder Morgan company that would go through the area.
Liberty Utilities is set to benefit from the pipeline should it be built, and has filed a petition with the N.H. Public Utilities Commission seeking approval to own and operate gas franchises in Jaffrey, Rindge, Swanzey and Winchester.
Liberty Utilities is a subsidiary of Algonquin Power and Utilities Corp., which has its headquarters in Ontario, Canada. Algonquin partnered with Kinder Morgan to form Northeast Expansion LLC to build and own the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, with Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. being brought in as Kinder Morgan’s subsidiary to operate it.
Kinder Morgan spokeswoman Tiffany Eddy referred a question about any effects Saturday’s incident could have on the pipeline project to Liberty Utilities.
“This is a Liberty Utilities operation issue and did not involve Kinder Morgan or natural gas,” she said.
Communities in the path of the proposed pipeline — Fitzwilliam, Richmond, Rindge, Troy and Winchester — have been fighting the project for about a year, and among their concerns are the safety of the interstate transmission line and the emergency response in the event the line leaked or exploded.
Area fire chiefs have said they’re worried about whether they’d have the manpower and expertise to respond to a potential pipeline-related emergency.
Richmond Fire Chief Ed Atkins said Monday it was reassuring to see the large number of agencies respond to the Keene incident. “It’s comforting to know other towns have our back” if an emergency hit the natural gas pipeline.
But, he questioned whether that response would be enough.
Fitzwilliam Selectman Susan S. Silverman said in her town and others along the proposed pipeline route, there aren’t as many people as in Keene to notice problems until they’ve become extreme, and that worries her. Even though the system in Keene isn’t natural gas, she said the incident Saturday reinforced her safety concerns about the proposed pipeline.
Tennessee Gas Pipeline officials have proposed building the high-pressure transmission pipeline to carry fracked natural gas from shale gas fields in Pennsylvania through upstate New York, parts of northern Massachusetts and into southern New Hampshire before going to a distribution hub in eastern Massachusetts.
Officials filed the project’s application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has the power to approve or reject the pipeline, last month. Company officials have asked the commission to approve the project by the fourth quarter of 2016.
Rindge resident Maryann Harper, vice chairwoman of New Hampshire Pipeline Awareness, an anti-pipeline group, said her safety concerns about the pipeline became “extremely heightened” by the incident in Keene.
“I think people experiencing something like this close by within our state or general region, you can see this is an unnecessary risk for us to take,” she said.
Richmond resident Seth Reece, another pipeline opponent, said he worries Kinder Morgan and Liberty Utilities will use Saturday’s incident to make a case that the pipeline is needed now more than ever to supply energy because the propane-air system in Keene is aging and out-of-date.
“Who’s to say Kinder Morgan does not just jump on the bandwagon of this emergency saying their pipeline is safer, or Liberty says its equipment is outdated and needs to be upgraded,” he said.
The N.H. Public Utilities Commission will hold a status conference in January to accept a preliminary assessment and factual information from Liberty Utilities’ investigation and its own probe into Saturday’s incident in Keene.

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