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Safety cases a secret for utilities, PUC

Pa. laws prevent, even prohibit, transparency, and short of disasters, few fines levied for violations.

Each year, natural gas utilities are cited for dozens of safety problems by Pennsylvania regulators.

But unless something blows up or there's a huge gas leak, utilities rarely have to pay a fine, records show.

In the last five years, the Public Utility Commission has levied just 17 fines for safety violations - a small fraction of the cases in which regulators have cited utilities for safety violations.

As for all the other safety cases, they're a secret between the utilities and the PUC.

The agency won't tell the public what happened, or where, or whether the public was placed at risk. It won't even identify the utilities involved.

The PUC says its goal is to correct safety problems quickly - not to punish or embarrass utilities. The agency believes that revealing safety inspections would interfere with a "collaborative and deliberative process," said spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.

The PUC's eight gas-safety inspectors are responsible for 46,000 miles of pipelines, along with other natural gas facilities.

The PUC also will take over regulation of some of the thousands of miles of new high-pressure pipelines being built to get the Marcellus Shale gas to market.

"They're extremely understaffed and very overworked," said Lynda Farrell, a pipeline-safety advocate from Chester County. "I think they do the best they can given the funding and the lack of manpower, or people power."

Last week, the PUC filed a public complaint against Philadelphia Gas Works, alleging safety violations in one high-profile case - the fatal gas explosion in the Tacony section in January. It called for the maximum $500,000 fine, a record for a gas-safety case.

That's far harsher than the typical penalty. In Pennsylvania, the gas-safety cases can drag on for as long as five years and result in an average settlement of $47,000. Under the PUC deals, the utilities are allowed to settle cases without admitting wrongdoing.

Six of the 17 cases that resulted in penalties were against UGI Utilities, the company that serves Allentown, where a gas explosion killed five people in February. One involved another Allentown explosion in 2006 that injured a worker.

The utility says it has worked with the PUC in these cases to improve its safety procedures and has resolved all of them without a finding of fault.

"I think our goal is not necessarily to monetarily punish the companies, but rather provide a safe environment for natural gas," said Kocher.

The alternative, she said, often means fighting utilities in court.

"We are taking the stance that, if they are coming into compliance and doing those things they are supposed to be doing," she said, "then the monetary sanctions are not necessarily needed."

A recent report by the Pipeline Safety Trust, a watchdog group, found that, when it comes to gas-safety enforcement, the PUC flunks most tests of transparency.

"Only when state pipeline-safety agencies provide clear evidence that they are on top of these safety issues will trust in pipeline safety be rebuilt," said Carl Weimer, the group's executive director.

In Pennsylvania, the PUC not only posts no inspection reports on its website, but actually argues that the public doesn't have the right to see them at all. The commission declined requests from The Inquirer and the Wall Street Journal to release all such reports, saying it would make public only the handful that ended in settlements.

In New Jersey, also given low marks in the transparency study, these kinds of inspections are considered public record, said spokesman Greg Reinert. The Board of Public Utilities hopes to put them on its website once it overhauls its outdated computer network, he said.

In Pennsylvania, secrecy for many utility records is enshrined in state law.

The state right-to-know law has exemptions that allow utilities to keep many records confidential if they would reveal the locations of pipelines and other facilities.

In Philadelphia, PGW cited those exemptions in denying an Inquirer request for records tracking the neighborhood locations of its most leak-prone pipes.

On top of that, Pennsylvania has a separate 2006 law that aims to keep a lid on utility records. Spurred by terrorism fears, it is forbiddingly named the Public Utility Confidential Security Information Disclosure Protection Act.

Last month, new federal rules went into effect requiring utilities to file so-called integrity management plans about their pipeline networks. First, though, the utilities are arguing that these safety plans should be kept under wraps - and the PUC has agreed.

Olivia Thorne, president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, said that policy blinds not only the general public, but also firefighters and police.

"Some people definitely have to know," she said. "How do you expect to develop an emergency plan if they won't tell them any secrets?"

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