Imported Gas Cited In Rash Of Leaks

By Ray Rivera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 7, 2005

Washington Gas officials said yesterday that a change from domestic to imported natural gas was the "key contributing factor" in a rash of leaks in underground mains and service lines in Prince George's County over the past two winters.

A company-sponsored study, launched after a District Heights house exploded in late March, found that subtle molecular differences in the imported liquefied natural gas the utility began using in August 2003 were drying the rubber seals of aging metal couplings that link sections of pipe.

The utility, which serves almost a million customers in the Washington region, said it now expects to spend $144 million -- almost double its original estimate -- to repair an estimated 1,400 leaks in Prince George's and to replace thousands of old couplings.

Whether the replacement program -- which company officials said is two-thirds complete -- will translate into higher rates for customers is an open question. The company has not asked state regulators for an increase, but retains the right to do so.

The frequency of leaks began to soar in late 2003, soon after the company started supplying Prince George's with imported gas, mainly from Trinidad, brought in by tanker through Dominion's Cove Point liquefied natural gas terminal in Calvert County. The leaks tapered off as customer demand for gas fell in the summer, but they surged again this past winter.

The study's full results will be released at a news conference today, the company said. Washington Gas has scheduled a conference call this morning for industry analysts to discuss the findings and their financial implications for its publicly traded parent company, WGL Inc.

Washington Gas said it expects to be able to continue to use the imported gas through additional processing. It did not specify how.

"We believe that we can reverse seal deterioration by conditioning the Cove Point gas entering the system to prevent future drying of seals," Adrian Chapman, Washington Gas's vice president of energy acquisition and regulatory affairs, said in a statement.

Cove Point officials yesterday sharply disagreed with the Washington Gas interpretation of the study. An analysis performed by Dominion Resources Inc., which operates the terminal, found that the chemical makeup of gas from its facility closely matched gas generally used in the Washington Gas system.

"There was and is absolutely nothing wrong with the natural gas from Cove Point," Dominion spokesman Dan Donovan said last night. "The gas meets the stringent standards set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and agreed to by Washington Gas and other companies that receive it."

Donovan added that the full Environ report, which Dominion engineers have reviewed, shows that the age of the equipment, particularly the 40- to- 50-year-old seals, was the real cause of the problem.

The Maryland Public Service Commission launched an inquiry into the leaks in April after the District Heights explosion, in which no one was injured. Residents complained of gas odor before the blast.

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