Orion Twp. gas blast probe to take a month

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

It’s expected to take a month before officials determine the cause of the gas line explosion that rocked Orion Township and Auburn Hills late Monday, Consumers Energy officials said.

The pipeline, owned by Consumers, is 66 years old and was last inspected seven years ago as required by law, the company said.

Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett said he has been “flooded” with calls from officials and some of the township’s 36,000 residents about the safety of the line, which delivers natural gas from Utica to Clarkston. They fear the same pipeline may have ruptured twice previously in the past 12 years.

“We are all greatly relieved there were no injuries (and) no serious loss of property,” Barnett said. “But we do have many questions that we need answered from Consumers Energy regarding the current pipeline and safety of those living, working and visiting Orion Township.”

Consumers Energy and the Michigan Public Safety Commission, which regulates utilities in the state, will lead the investigation, officials from both entities said.

“Consumers Energy will take the lead in terms of the investigation,” Consumers spokesman Brian Wheeler wrote in an email. “The MPSC will review our findings.”

The rupture comes amid a heightened debate over pipeline safety. A line operated by Enbridge Inc. ruptured near Marshall in 2010, spilling more than a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge’s 60-year-old oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac faces scrutiny after a protective coating was found to be missing in several locations. And the Keystone XL oil pipeline got a key regulatory approval in Nebraska this week despite leaking 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota.

It’s in that climate that the MPSC and the staff of its Gas Operations division will issue a final report to the commission with findings, recommendations, or suggestions for best practices.

“A metallurgical examination of the pipeline is the most critical part of the investigation and a priority,” MPSC spokesman Nick Assendelft wrote in an email. “Others things they’ll look at: Pipeline design, construction, operations and maintenance, previous inspection reports, any data for the area of the rupture.”

The rupture caused a massive fire in the Orion Township and Auburn Hills area Monday and impacted emergency call service in the vicinity, but did not impact gas service to customers.

“The Public Service Commission is the only state agency whose responsibility it is to investigate a situation such as this one,” said Assendelft. “Other agencies might be brought in if findings lead in a certain direction, but the PSC is the main investigator.”

On the federal level, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has some oversight of pipelines, and the National Transportation Safety Board can play some role, Assendelft said.

“But they defer to the PSC to do the investigation, and the PSC will keep them informed of the state’s findings,” said Assendelft.

The PHMSA and NTSB did not immediately respond to questions from The News.

Assendelft said the MPSC has nine engineers on staff who are continuously meeting with natural gas pipeline operators to conduct pipeline safety inspections to ensure compliance with pipeline safety regulations.

“These inspections include evaluating operations and maintenance procedures, operations and maintenance records, operations and maintenance work, design, construction, qualifications of employees, and pipeline integrity programs,” he said. “The Commission staff also investigates pipeline incidents and will be working with Consumers Energy to determine the cause of yesterday’s incident.”

Asked what factors will be investigated, Assendelft said, “It’s open-ended this early in the investigation. Among the things that will be looked at: outside forces, natural forces, material or equipment failure, incorrect operations, excavation damage, corrosion.”

So far, investigators haven’t found anything suspicious or unusual relating to an intentional act, according to the county.

Consumers Energy serves 6.7 million Michigan customers and has more than 27,000 miles of natural gas distribution pipeline, according to its website.

Consumers did register a warning sign right before the explosion.

“Our system noticed a loss of pressure about 10 minutes before the fire was reported,” said Wheeler. “We are not aware of any other issues, but are continuing our investigation.”

Mary Palkovich, Consumers Energy vice president for gas engineering and supply, said the drop in pressure came “because the pipe opened up.”

“We can’t yet tell the metalurigical analysis, which will tell us why it failed, until we complete our investigation,” she said.

She said the investigation involves several issues, which includes working with the Michigan Public Service Commission, and following federal law to ascertain a metallurgical analysis.

“The metalurgical analysis is where the pipe is taken to a lab and they run an analysis to better understand why it occurred,” said Palkovich.

Asked what they’ll be looking for, she responded, “We won’t know until we get the lab report and investigate it, but the state will be right there with us.”

Barnett, the Orion Township supervisor, is somewhat relieved after utility officials have told him the shutoff in the 22-inch pipe will not have an immediate impact on residents or businesses because they don’t feed off what was described as a “city-to-city” gas supply pipeline.

Barnett is also concerned about redevelopment plans along the Brown Road corridor. A Menards store has been clearing ground for a business adjacent to property which burned shrub and trees to the ground.

“We were just lucky that this occurred (Monday) which is undeveloped and no one lives,” said Barnett. “But could it occur somewhere else along the pipeline.”

Barnett said photographs he has seen of Monday night’s gas line rupture appeared a large exposed “shear” where a weld along the pipe separated.

“The quicker they can reach some conclusions the better for everyone concerned.”

Mike Martindale contributed.