By Mike Dunn
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - With the dust settling on Mayor Nutter's doomed attempt to sell PGW, state officials are now taking a hard look at whether the city-owned utility should speed up the replacement of aging and potentially dangerous gas mains.
The state Public Utility Commission will spend the next few months studying how to get PGW to accelerate the replacement of mains. PUC Chairman Rob Powelson said the severity of the issue was made clear to the commission during a hearing last fall:
"PGW has the highest percentage of risky pipe in the state of Pennsylvania. We heard it from one of the pipeline safety experts from Rhode Island (who testified). When asked should we be concerned about this risky pipe, he said it wasn't a question of if something's going to happen, its a question of when."
Powelson hopes to have the study of the issue complete by mid-April:
"There's a concern here. That's why we wanted to begin this process. And we want it to be a collaborative project with PGW management."
PGW spokesman Barry O'Sullivan said the utility is on an 88-year replacement schedule, and does not dispute that a faster schedule would be helpful:
"It would be hard for us to argue with that. I think we would agree with that. But that isn't to say that the work we're doing now is insufficient to the task and to the relative risk that we face. We're already replacing 25 miles of cast iron per year. But if there's a way to do more and do it faster, without unduly interrupting the life and times of the city, then we're completely open to that conversation."
For its part, the Nutter Administration welcomes the PUC action and believes the issue of dangerous mains could have been solved had City Council approved the sale of PGW to a private firm, UIL Holdings of Connecticut. This is spokesman Mark McDonald:
"We think that the sale of PGW to UIL would have advanced the cause of pipe replacement on several orders of magnitude."
But McDonald says the Administration is concerned that the PUC would want the cost of stepped-up replacement to come out of PGW's annual $18 million dollar payment to the city. That, he says, could cause a $90 million hit to the mayor's long-range budget:
"We generally plan in five-year increments, and $18 million times five is a pretty big number."
PUC Chairman Powelson says the idea of using that money to fund accelerated main replacement will be discussed:
"Its on the table. We're looking at every available revenue stream that can flow back to the utility for accelerated pipeline replacement. There has got to be a serious discussion about the $18 million payment to the city."
The staunchest opponent of the PGW sale, city councilperson and Gas Commission member Marion Tasco, told the Inquirer that the PUC's study of main safety was retribution for Council's refusal to approve the sale to UIL. Powelson staunchly refutes that claim:
"Absolutely not. The Public Utility Commission would never enter politics into safety. This whole debate on the PGW sale or no sale, that has really absolutely nothing to do with this, other than to say we have a safety oversight responsibility. And that's why we're taking this course of action."
There are 1500 miles of cast iron mains under the streets of Philadelphia, much of it decades old.
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