This thing's gonna blow!

CenterPoint Energy's small infrastructure problem


KSTP-TV (Channel Five) ran a two-part series at the start of the week that looked back at the December 2004 natural gas explosion in Ramsey. The first part was filled with the kind of TV news bathos that tends to pull in viewers, but obscures the larger issue.

(The piece was done, after all, by Kristin Stinar, she of the self-reflective ovarian cancer series during the last sweeps period.)

But the second part shows that a state investigation revealed that the problem--and potential for further explosions--is more widespread than anyone might think. (The whole story is here.)

KSTP points out that the Ramsey explosion happened at 9:47 a.m.; crews couldn't locate the pipeline and turn off the gas until nearly three hours later.

As much was copped to by CenterPoint Energy in a recent mailer (and on its web site). In it, CenterPoint proclaims that it serves some 760,000 customers in 240 "communities" around Minnesota, running from the southwest corner to the heart of the state. Some 80,000 customers in 37 townships and municipalities--but "not all," the pamphlet says in boldface--might be affected by some faulty engineering.

According to CenterPoint, the blame belongs firmly in the long-gone hands of Midwest Gas Service Co., which bought lines in 1986 from North Central Public Service Co., which served the identified areas starting in 1959.

(CenterPoint, then known as Reliant, before it then merged with Minnegasco, bought all the lines in 1993.)

The problem, according to the company literature, is that some lines have "metal couplings" that connect to plastic pipes, which apparently led to the Ramsey explosion.

"CenterPoint Energy has never used this type of installation on its service lines," the missive notes, "and is committed to replacing service lines that could have these couplings."

Buck-passing aside, the revelation is a case study in deregulation. In the mid-90s, when utility companies were profoundly deregulated, the idea was that many entrepreneurs would get in the game of providing power and service. Why, it was so easy! Anyone could do it! Venture capitalists lined up, looked at the complicated infrastructure, shrugged, and walked away.

Like so many dereg moments, the only true winners were those who knew the inside baseball of the industry. A new era of energy producers (ushered in by Bill Clinton) was largely populated by old companies buying up old companies--and then changing names. What deregulation really meant, it would seem some 10 years later, was that energy conglomerates could swallow problematic infrastructures without so much a hint of an upgrade. (Remember the SoCal brownouts and the post-9/11 east coast blackout?)

So now, CenterPoint has to correct the past misdeeds of the companies it inherited. Don't take too much pity, though: It took a major natural gas explosion for CenterPoint to even find all of its gaslines, let alone bring them up to some kind of safety standard.

The project, according to the company lit, will be completed in 2005. Even so, if the list of communities still potentially affected by faulty "couplings" is any indication, it has a long way to go.

All but nine of some 47 communities just north of the Twin Cities are targeted for the revamp project. If you live in any number of townships, like Buffalo, Burns, Chatham, Princeton or Isanti townships, you're likely safe.

But if you live in places as varied (alphabetically, at least) as Andover, Buffalo, Champlin, Dayton, East Bethel, Foreston, Grasston, Ham Lake, Isanti, Kimball, Lino Lakes, Maple Lake, Oak Grove, Pease, Ramsey (!), Spring Lake Park or Watkins: Caveat Emptor.

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