On Feb. 27, the drill head of a horizontal directional drilling (HDD) machine clipped a 5/8-inch gas line in a residential neighborhood of Royal Oak, MI. Escaping gas migrated to a nearby home and soon after the drilling crew left for the day, the gas ignited, destroying one home and killing its owner.
About a dozen nearby dwellings were damaged, displacing families who lived in them.
The following day the article in the local newspaper, the Macomb Daily, quoted a press release from Consumers Energy, the area’s gas service provider, expressing sympathy to family and friends of the victim, Daniel Malczynski, and stating that Consumers Energy was cooperating with the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) and other regulatory agencies in the investigation to determine the cause of the incident.
“Preliminary testing has determined that a gas service line to the house was damaged and was the possible cause of the explosion,” said the press release.
Soon after, the gas provider announced it had suspended directional drilling operations throughout the state and emphasized in the public statement that the safety of the community is the top priority of Consumers Energy. Details about the cause of the incident would be released when the investigation was complete.
Those details came surprisingly quick.
A week after suspension of drilling activities were announced, Consumers Energy publicly accepted responsibility for the accident. The drilling unit that struck the gas line was owned and operated by Consumers Energy, owner of the gas line.
“Based on our findings to date,” said a company press release dated March 15, “we have taken appropriate disciplinary action, including terminations for failure to follow established policies and procedures. We take our responsibility to protect our communities, customers and employees very seriously and are committed to a zero tolerance policy when it comes to their safety. With this commitment in mind, we continue to be vigilant and proactive in taking steps to reassure the public.”
After completing its detailed review and validation of standard operating procedures with employees and contractors working on Consumers Energy’s system, directional drilling operations resumed the following week. Mary Palkovich, executive manager of gas assets, told the Macomb Daily that directional drilling is no more dangerous than other means of setting pipe.
“It’s only more dangerous if the excavator who’s using the tool doesn’t follow the rules,” she said.
In most incidents involving accidental damage to utilities that result in serious injury or death, investigations continue for a lengthy period of time with little information about what actually caused the accident. Statements issued by these organizations are carefully worded and reviewed by attorneys with a primary goal of deflecting blame from themselves.
Only two weeks after the accident, the utility provider came forward and pointed the finger at itself.
“We have a commitment to safety and are transparent and open regarding this responsibility,” Garrick Rochow, Consumers Energy vice president of energy delivery, said in an interview with Underground Construction magazine. “Typically, we have 12 directional drilling crews in operation, five composed of our trained personnel, and the others are subcontractors. We have stringent safety guidelines for operating this equipment and in this instance, they were not followed.”
Those guidelines require potholing to visibly expose buried pipe or cable any time a bore path crosses or comes in close proximity to a utility.
“That day our crew was in the process of relocating a gas line as part of a street project,” said Rochow. “The crew did not dig around the gas line to expose it and confirm the bore was not on a path to strike the pipe. That is the cause of this incident.”
To help allay safety concerns, before displaced residents returned to their homes Consumers Energy employees tested for the presence of gas in and around homes, verified appliances were relit and operating, and pressure-tested customer-owned fuel lines of each home.
A team of employees met with residents and businesses in a wider area around the site, identifying any concerns and offering additional safety testing.
“We have reached out to the Royal Oak School District offering safety training and educational programs for students, teachers and administrators,” said Rochow.
Throughout the year, Consumers Energy conducts a number of ongoing, safety programs added Rochow, including:
• Taking a proactive approach to detect gas leaks along pipeline systems throughout company service areas;
• Encouraging citizens who smell a “rotten egg” odor to immediately contact the company from a safe location by calling (800) 477-5050 to report the odor, a primary step in identifying gas leaks;
• Use of specially-equipped trucks to detect natural gas particles, driving routes on established routines and regular timetables;
• Conducting walking surveys using hand-held gas-detection equipment; and
• Assigning company pilots to fly regularly over the gas pipeline system to perform visual inspections for safety and reliability.
Rochow said the company has a comprehensive Integrity Management Plan in place to maintain and evaluate its pipelines, as part of the federal Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002.
“We review the structural integrity of our pipelines using methods that include running an electronic device inside pipes to transmit images and gather data about the condition of the pipes and pressure testing pipelines using water and above-ground test instruments,” he said. “If potential problems are indicated during these processes, we will excavate and examine the pipe and make repairs.”
As part of its Integrity Management Plan, Consumers Energy is replacing much of its steel and cast iron pipe and is projected to spend an additional $67 million in 2013 on upgrading and safety improvements to its gas delivery system, an increase of $11 million over 2012.
Consumers Energy, the principal subsidiary of CMS Energy, provides natural gas and electricity to 6.8 million of Michigan’s 10 million residents in all 68 Lower Peninsula counties.