After explosion, Xcel inspecting gas lines in St. Paulby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Ray Mayer took a hammer and saw to one wall in his laundry room this morning. He was helping crews who are looking for what could be a deadly mistake buried in his yard.
A home on the next block was destroyed last week when a sewer cleaner hit a natural gas line that was accidentally run through an underground waste pipe.
Mayer had to cut a hole in the wall, so that workers Corey Hilla and Brian Leonard could break open a sewer plug in his basement and stick a camera down the pipe.
It's a scene playing out in dozens of homes southeast of the Ford Motor plant in St. Paul in recent days. Officials say shallow sewers in the neighborhood and a street reconstruction project in 1991 may have left a dangerous legacy.
During the project nearly 20 years ago, new gas lines were installed in holes drilled through the ground, rather than open trenches dug through yards -- a process that is cheaper and faster.
But the drills may have run pipe right through sewer lines dating back to the 1950s. That could eventually cause clogs, and prompt homeowners to have their drains cleaned out with power augers that can cut the gas lines. That may be what caused the break that leveled the home on Villard Ave.
It's the latest in a series of similar problems dating back to 1999. One underground leak prompted a blast that drew state regulators and thousands of sewer inspections, paid for by Xcel, in 2005.
Elizabeth Skalnek is the chief engineer at the state's Office of Pipeline Safety. She said her department urged Xcel to take action years ago to fix the problem.
"They enacted a very extensive inspection program, and they gave us information that their inspection program would find the problem. Obviously, it didn't."
Her department is now threatening Xcel with a $1 million fine unless the company comes up with a comprehensive plan to list all the "trenchless" gas lines Xcel has installed around the state. It also has to turn over records of any inspections it has done, and fix any problems within two weeks.
That could potentially involve of thousands of gas customers.
It isn't clear how many may actually require sewer inspections, or how often gas lines may be crossing other utility lines.
Bill Kaphing, the vice president of operations for Xcel, says his company is working to comply with the state's demand.
"The only conflicts we've found to date have been in the metro east area, with the far majority being in the St. Paul area," he said. "It's a fairly minimal problem, but obviously one that needs to be addressed for safety reasons."
Kaphing says inspections started Saturday in the area around last week's explosions. The rest of the neighborhood is expected to be scoped out, as the process is called, by the middle of this week.
Back in Highland Park, plumber Brian Leonard watched a video monitor as a long coiled plumbing snake pushed a color video camera and a bright light out the pipe from Mayer's basement to the street.
He found tree roots growing in the pipe, but nothing else.
Ray Mayer says he's not surprised.
"The gas is clear on the other end of the house," he said. "I'm not worried at all about it."
Across the street, Kerry LeClair said she didn't think her gas line was a threat either, but she and her husband welcomed the inspections anyway, just to be sure.
"We're of course concerned, just because we have young children," she said. "But we feel like Xcel is doing a great job to try and rectify the situation and make sure that everybody is safe."
Xcel has until February 19th to comply with the state's demand for information. The company has to alert the state immediately if it finds any more mislaid gas lines.
- All Things Considered, 02/08/2010, 5:24 p.m.