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Sandy fuels awareness of gas lines' vulnerability Utilities hoping to learn from destructive storm that showed weaknesses in infrastructure

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Marc Babson, New Jersey Natural Gas mechanic, exchanges a meter at a home in Lavallette
Marc Babson, New Jersey Natural Gas mechanic, exchanges a meter at a home in Lavallette - ()

As the forecasts last October went from “potentially dangerous” to “worst-case scenario,” the crew at New Jersey Natural Gas began bracing for a direct hit.

Kathy Ellis, chief operating officer at the Wall Township-based utility, said her company prepared for Hurricane Sandy by looking back to 2011's Hurricane Irene, a storm that had been the worst in the company's history.

"We basically prepared for that level, that kind of damage," Ellis said. "The damage we sustained in Sandy was completely different."

Three days after Sandy came ashore, the utility would be forced to shut off service to 28,000 customers on the barrier islands — an unprecedented move. Sandy swept away the ground above and below a 12-inch distribution line in Mantoloking that had been buried four feet underground. It also damaged the gas infrastructure at thousands of individual properties as tens of thousands of homes and businesses were flooded, gutted or blown off their foundations.

"There is basically, though, no comparison," said Craig Lynch, vice president of energy delivery at NJNG. "Irene was nothing for us. It was more of a nuisance compared to what we encountered here."

In the six months since the storm, New Jersey Natural Gas and the state's other gas utilities have finished up the work of getting service back to customers whose homes are in good enough shape to safely receive it. They've also begun an extensive review of the hurricane, trying to learn ways to limit damage or speed up its responses in future storms.

Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer at Public Service Electric & Gas, said his company's system suffered from two types of problems.

"Because we have the responsibility for safe and reliable service, when the waters recede from the basement, we go in and try to do an inspection," he said.

The utility conducted 41,547 inspections at homes or premises.

"The other thing that happened during Sandy, which was unique, was because of the level of flooding, we actually had water get into the main system," he said.

Rising waters in places like Hoboken caused water infiltration into gas mains. That water eventually ends up in gas meters. That's a major problem, because that water can freeze in the winter — which began less than two months after Sandy. LaRossa said individual meters had to be removed and dried out, or in some cases replaced. He said he does not have a figure for how much damage the storm levied on the gas system specifically.

The storm required some mains to be replaced, though not as many as initially thought. When New Jersey Natural Gas cut off pressure to 270 miles of barrier island mains, officials worried water and sand would ruin the system.

That fear "is always hanging out there" Lynch said. "It doesn't outweigh safety, though. In dealing with the reality of it, we were preparing that we may have to replace significant parts of our infrastructure."

As it turned out, crews were able to reuse 250 miles' worth of pipes, significantly cutting down on their costs. Ellis said they expect Sandy-related capital expenditures to range between $30 million and $40 million, money the utility eventually will seek to recoup through a rate case with the Board of Public Utilities.

Carlos Rojas, New Jersey Natural Gas foreman, works on a gas valve on a 6-inch distribution main during the re-pressurization of Long Beach Island.
Carlos Rojas, New Jersey Natural Gas foreman, works on a gas valve on a 6-inch distribution main during the re-pressurization of Long Beach Island. - ()

In the southern part of the state, only about 160 South Jersey Gas customers lost gas service during the storm, thanks largely to the storm's late northward turn.

"We really fared really well, considering," said Paul Zuccarino, vice president of distribution operations for the utility. "If we got the hit that the north got, we would probably have more of an outage in the island area, where there are low-pressure distribution mains."

Still, South Jersey Gas is working to replace outdated mains, though not just in response to the storm. The company's accelerated infrastructure replacement program dates back to 2009, when the utility launched a $140 million program. They went back to the BPU last July, eventually winning permission for another $140 million worth of work, to be completed over the next four years.

New Jersey Natural Gas also is in the midst of a major infrastructure program. The company plans to replace half its cast iron and unprotected steel mains over five years, at a cost of $130 million. The plan was approved by the BPU a week before Sandy hit.

PSE&G also is looking to be proactive, albeit on an even larger scale. Its $3.9 billion "Energy Strong" proposal calls for the modernization of existing mains with high-pressure mains, at a cost of about $1 billion. The plan could be in for a tough battle, however, as groups ranging from the Chemistry Council of New Jersey to AARP New Jersey have raised concerns about its costs.

PSE&G's counter-argument, however, is that Sandy and similar storms have exposed serious weaknesses, particularly in the state's electrical grid, which can only be fixed by major, proactive spending.

Andrew Hendry, president and CEO of the New Jersey Utilities Association, said most of the needed improvements will likely come on the electric side, not the gas side, since the latter system is mostly underground.

"There are certainly areas where investment is needed, but you're not as much dealing with a situation where the infrastructure is exposed to weather which certainly is more so the case with the electrics," he said.

Still, Hendry said utilities across the board are preparing for more "100-year" storms like Sandy, on the assumption the term "100-year" is increasingly a misnomer.

E-mail to: jaredk@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @jaredkaltwasser

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