City agrees to upgrade gas system or be hit with fines

Enumclaw’s round of negotiations with the pipeline safety staff of the Utilities and Transportation Commission appears headed to an amicable conclusion – at least as friendly as can be expected when a state agency tells a city to follow its rules or face substantial monetary penalties.

Members of the Enumclaw City Council voted June 22 to accept an agreement that details how the city will upgrade its natural gas distribution system during the next 36 months. That agreement also spells out the penalties that will be imposed if the city fails to live up to its end of the deal.

The arrangement calls for $1.97 million in penalties to be levied against the city, but the entire amount will be suspended if the city makes the necessary improvements to its gas utility.

The agreement ratified by the city has also been approved by the UTC staff, but that doesn’t make it official. The three members making up the Utilities and Transportation Commission are not bound to accept the staff recommendation; commissioners could elect to reject or modify the agreement. The UTC is expected to make a final decision this summer.

UTC staff filed a complaint in February against the city of Enumclaw citing violations of gas safety rules and recommending penalties. A 2008 inspection revealed numerous unsafe conditions that UTC staff had identified in earlier inspections. When the news broke in February of the UTC’s complaint against the city, it was noted that perhaps $11 million in fines could be levied. A city team including City Attorney Mike Reynolds, City Administrator Mark Bauer and Mayor John Wise have been working since February on a settlement.

In the proposed settlement, the city agreed to a comprehensive plan to address the operations and maintenance of its natural gas pipeline, including:

• Documenting regular repairs or inspections on the pipeline;

• Updating maps and an operations manual;

• Providing required safety training to employees;

• Conducting routine inspections for corrosion;

• Maintaining accurate gas-leak records;

• Reporting underground damage to pipes;

• Performing pressure tests; and

• Developing a quality-assurance program for safety-related activities.

Asked last week for his views on the settlement, Wise said he was not at liberty to discuss the matter, citing a clause in the settlement that prohibits either side from making statements to the press without first notifying the other side.

Moments after the agreement was approved by the council, however, Wise had noted it was “a great day for the city of Enumclaw.”

At that time, Councilman Kevin Mahelona asked Reynolds what might happen if the city fails to perform the specified work. If the legal process were to begin anew, Reynolds said, the entire $11 million in potential fines could be back on the table. The city would have to lose a legal battle for that to occur, Reynolds said.

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