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State files complaint against Enumclaw for safety violations

Editor's note: Below is the complete press release issued the morning of Feb. 10 by the state's Utilities and Transportation Commission. Following that is a response posted on the city's Web site. A news story, including updated information from the city following the Wednesday night meeting, will appear in the Feb. 18 edition of The Courier-Herald. For a more immediate update, visit www.courierherald.com Thursday.

STATE PRESS RELEASE

The state today filed a complaint against the city of Enumclaw alleging serious safety violations in the operations of the city’s natural gas system.

Following a routine comprehensive inspection of Enumclaw’s gas system, staff of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) filed a complaint alleging more than 600 violations of 18 different gas safety rules and recommending a penalty. Under state law, that penalty could reach as high as $11 million. Some of the more significant alleged violations involve the city’s continual failure to perform regular pipeline inspections and maintenance on the natural-gas distribution system.

“The city is unable to demonstrate it has performed proper maintenance and other minimum safety operations on its gas system,” said UTC Pipeline Safety Program Director Anne Soiza. “Commission staff has attempted to work with city officials to resolve these problems. Unfortunately, through follow-up inspections, we found the city has failed to adequately correct ongoing safety issues. We are concerned, if left unaddressed, that this pattern of behavior by the city will put the public at risk.”

This most recent investigation revealed 141 repeat incidents where the city failed to repair or replace steel gas pipes that need to be protected against corrosion, steps it had committed to complete by the end of 2005. Other ongoing problems uncovered by UTC staff include outdated system maps, poor recordkeeping of leak-detection inspection reports, and inadequate training for city workers on procedures to follow in the operation and maintenance of the pipeline system. The commission staff opened this investigation on June 9, 2008.

In a 2006 settlement agreement, Enumclaw had agreed to take steps to improve its program, including developing a new pipeline-safety manual for its employees, hiring a full-time qualified natural gas system manager, and adding qualified gas system workers to its staff. Rather than recommend the commission impose penalties, the UTC staff agreed to give the city an opportunity to comply with state laws governing pipeline safety.

The three-member commission will set a schedule for hearing the complaint. The UTC is not bound by staff recommendations.

The UTC monitors the city’s compliance with federal and state pipeline safety regulations for Enumclaw’s nearly 88 mile natural-gas distribution system in Washington. The commission has the authority to levy fines against operators found out of compliance. The UTC’s pipeline safety program performs inspections regularly on the state’s 26 operators.

The city of Enumclaw supplies natural gas to more than 4,000 customers. The city council, not the UTC, sets the natural gas rates for its residential, business and industrial customers.

CITY RESPONSE

City staff is surprised at the process in which the WUTC has brought these issues into the public light and the characterization depicted on the operations and maintenance of the City's Natural Gas system. The City began a comprehensive inspection by WUTC inspectors in June 2008 which identified numerous probable violations of pipeline safety regulations. Staff attempted, to the best of their ability and to the limited extent allowed by WUTC staff, to rebut the alleged violations and demonstrate the City's resolve to continue down the path laid out in the 2006 settlement agreement. The City stands ready to work through these issues with the WUTC in a cooperative fashion.

The Enumclaw City Council will hold a Special Meeting to discuss the WUTC complaint on Wednesday, February 11, at 7pm in Council Chambers in City Hall. An executive session may be held during the meeting.

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