Consumers Energy fined $10K for fire at natural gas facility during 2019 polar vortex

Evan James Carter
The Detroit News

Lansing — Consumers Energy has agreed to pay a $10,000 penalty and made modifications to its natural gas infrastructure after an investigation by state regulators into a Jan. 2019 fire at a natural gas facility.

This comes after the Michigan Public Service Commission accepted the findings of its Gas Safety Staff investigation into a fire at Consumers' Ray Natural Gas Compressor Station in Macomb County on Jan. 31, 2019, the commission said in a release.

FILE - Fire pours out of two structures at Consumer's Energy's Ray Compressor Station in Armada Twp. on Jan. 30, 2019, after an explosion near the rear of the facility.

The fire at the compressor station and the ensuing call by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for people to temporarily turn down their thermostats in order to protect the state's natural gas infrastructure, came in the midst of a polar vortex cold snap with record-low temperatures and high winds.

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The MPSC, which regulates the state's electricity and natural gas utilities, also said Gov. Whitmer asked the commission to conduct a statewide energy assessment to determine whether the design of Michigan's electric, natural gas and propane systems are adequate to handle operational problems, extreme weather events and other changing conditions.

“We appreciate and thank our customers across Michigan for all they did to help Consumers Energy and their neighbors during the unprecedented January 2019 event at the Ray Compressor Station," said Consumers Energy spokeswoman Katie Carey in a statement. "We did what was necessary to keep homes warm while safely returning the facility to operations in order to serve customers during the extreme cold temperatures during historically high demand for natural gas.”

The commission said it accepts earlier findings that the fire at the Ray Compressor Station was caused by grounding interference on the facility's electrical system leading to an "automated 'blowdown' procedures in which natural gas is released to the atmosphere." Instead of dispersing, commission staff found that the natural gas came into contact with nearby plant equipment that was hot, causing the gas to ignite. 

The design of the Ray facility, according to the commission, is unique and has been modified as part of the repairs made at the plant to bring it back into service. Consumers Energy is also required to submit a plan to evaluate its natural gas infrastructure to mitigate any existing risks by June 1.

Twitter: @EvanJamesCarter