Stretch of pipeline to be replaced after Orion blast

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Orion Township — An Orion Township official said Monday that Consumers Energy will replace about 1,200 feet of a gas line that ruptured nearly two months ago, creating a 20-foot deep crater and a towering, fiery blast that could be seen as far away as Detroit.

The utility company issued a news release Monday saying the pipeline broke because it had been topped with about 21 feet of fill dirt “by a third party” and the weight of the fill caused the 22-inch diameter pipe to sag and rupture. No one was injured in the Nov. 20 incident.

Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett said the utility told him last week that replacement work would begin later this month, be completed by summer and include putting the new section deeper underground.

“We don’t know who put in the fill dirt, but it wasn’t done overnight and the township didn’t do it,” said Barnett, who will meet Tuesday with a project engineer. “That has been a boggy, marshy area and some satellite photographs we have seen indicates this was done sometime in the 1980s.

“We would prefer that the entire gas line be replaced, but the utility said that is not necessary,” Barnett said. “They plan to place it 50 feet beneath the boggy area.”

Barnett said utility officials said the pipeline had previously been 3 to 15 feet below the surface of the swampy area.

The area, north of Brown Road and west of Joslyn on the border of Orion Township and Auburn Hills, is vacant, with no nearby residences.

Barnett said it remains unclear why the fill activity might have gone undetected for several decades. An unrelated explosion occurred on the same line, at an above-ground station seven miles east of the November blast site, in 2005.

“(Consumers Energy) like everyone else are just relieved there were no injuries in the November explosion,” said Barnett. “We have expressed our concerns to them and they have vowed to correct the matter so it never happens again, including educating adjacent property owners what they can and cannot do over the pipeline.”

Barnett said township officials have requested the line have an automatic shutoff valve installed, which would have provided advance notice of a problem. On Nov. 20, company records indicated an extreme gas pressure drop several minutes before the first 911 emergency call reporting an explosion.

“It took considerable time, perhaps two hours, before a worker could be dispatched, manually locate and shut off the gas flow,” Barnett said.

The township billed the utility for nearly $42,000 in emergency response service by the fire department and Oakland County sheriff’s deputies.

Nick Assendelft, a spokesman for the Michigan Public Service Commission, which oversees the state’s public utilities, said the agency would receive a report from Consumers on its findings.

“No hearings (are scheduled) before the commission itself but depending on the report’s findings, it could prompt some ruling or action by the commission,” Assendelft said.

Consumers Energy spokeswoman Debra Dodd said Monday the utility is looking into related matters in the blast investigation but could not immediately elaborate on a news release Monday, which said in part:

“This type of pipeline break is extremely rare. Consumers Energy is taking immediate action to ensure this does not happen again including enhancing its inspection patrols of all gas transmission lines; revising our construction standards to evaluate soil compressibility; and implementing comprehensive remediation plans that meet or exceed state and federal requirements.”

Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a Bellingham, Washington, nonprofit that monitors gas line mishaps, said Consumers Energy has had 21 gas pipeline incidents in Michigan since November 2006, resulting in more than $10 million in property damage.

The group has been critical of aging infrastructure and a lack of pipeline safety regulations to require replacement or decommissioning of older pipelines. The Orion Township pipeline is about 65 years old, about average for pipelines, he said.

Weimer said the Consumers Energy press release “all makes sense.”

“From the little they said about corrective actions, it would appear they are trying to learn from this incident and correct weaknesses in their operations,” Weimer said. “It’s just too bad that it always seems to take an incident for a company to do things that are already required under risk management. Unfortunately, the regulations are so ‘flexible’ that (it is) very hard to know what is actually required, or enforce.”

Dodd told The News last month that periodic maintenance and inspections of Consumers’ gas pipelines “is part of our normal operation to ensure public safety” for the 1.8 million homes and businesses the company serves in Michigan. This year, Consumers’ parent firm, CMS Energy, is investing $378 million in gas pipeline integrity, infrastructure replacement and growth, she said.

Barnett said he is “satisfied” with the utility’s response and feels they share the township’s concerns about “getting things right.”

“All we want is to make sure our residents, businesses and visitors are safe,” he said.

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