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City, UTC to continue negotiating

The back-and-forth negotiating between Enumclaw and the state’s Utilities and Transporta-tion Commission will continue next week, as the city looks to avoid possible fines threatened by the state agency.

The rocky relationship between the two parties reached a climax Feb. 10, when the UTC issued a press release detailing a formal complaint lodged against the city. In its release, the UTC’s pipeline safety staff alleged the city was guilty of more than 600 violatons of 18 different gas safety rules. Some of the more significant alleged violations involved the city’s alleged continual failure to perform regular pipeline inspections and maintenance on the natural-gas distribution system.

The Feb. 10 release noted that suggested fines against the city could reach $11 million. It also was clear in its message that the staff only makes recommendations to the UTC board of commissioners, which has final authority in such matters.

A trio of Enumclaw officials – City Administrator Mark Bauer, City Attorney Mike Reynolds and Public Works Director Chris Searcy – trekked to Olympia Feb. 13 to begin discussions with the UTC that, they hope, will lead to an amicable settlement.

Immediately after the news release was issued, the city had posted on its Web site that it was “surprised” by the UTC announcement.

That notion was scoffed at by UTC spokeswoman Marilyn Meehan. During a phone interview Friday, Meehan said “it should not have been a surprise to the city at all.”

She pointed to a Nov. 17 letter directed to the city that spelled out the agency’s ongoing concerns and an exit interview that was conducted Oct. 15, both following a June 2008 investigation.

The alleged problems with the city’s natural gas delivery, Meehan reminded, go back to 1996.

The city’s initial argument was that a UTC letter issued in the early part of 2008 indicated everything was proceeding smoothly and as requested by the state.

Dave Lykken, the state’s chief pipeline safety engineer, said that letter dealt with only half the battle. An earlier agreement with the city detailed how the city would hire a natural gas manager, develop a manual addressing operations and maintenance of its system and add employees to the natural gas utility. Those steps were taken, Lykken said, prompting the 2008 letter.

“But that had nothing to do with the findings that go back to 1996,” Lykken said, emphasizing that the city is still not in compliance with UTC recommendations of a decade ago.

Lykken acknowledged there are opportunities for the two sides to reach agreement.

“The city wants to find a middle ground and wants to get this thing settled,” he said, noting that a second meeting between UTC staff and city representatives is scheduled for March 5 in Olympia. That session is designed to continue building the framework for a negotiated settlement, he said.

A crucial date is March 11, when a prehearing conference will take place at UTC headquarters in Olympia. An administrative law judge will preside, Meehan said, and will determine a schedule for future proceedings. Any type of settlement agreement, she added, will not be reached during that session.

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