Gas utilities in Pennsylvania are cited for dozens of safety violations a year, but they rarely face fines or public disclosure, according to a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In the last five years, the Public Utility Commission has levied just 17 fines for safety violations - a small fraction of the cases in which regulators have cited utilities for safety violations, according to the Inquirer.
As for all the other safety cases, they're a secret between the utilities and the PUC, the report states. The agency won't tell the public what happened, or where, or whether the public was placed at risk. It won't even identify the utilities involved.
The PUC says its goal is to correct safety problems quickly, not to punish or embarrass utilities, according to the Inquirer. The agency believes that revealing safety inspections would interfere with a "collaborative and deliberative process," said spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.
The PUC's eight gas-safety inspectors are responsible for 46,000 miles of pipelines, along with other natural gas facilities. The PUC also will take over regulation of some of the thousands of miles of new high-pressure pipelines being built to get the Marcellus Shale gas to market.
"They're extremely understaffed and very overworked," said Lynda Farrell, a pipeline-safety advocate from Chester County told the Inquirer.
Last week, the PUC filed a public complaint against Philadelphia Gas Works, alleging safety violations in one high-profile case - the fatal gas explosion in the Tacony section of Philadelphia in January. It called for the maximum $500,000 fine - a record for a gas-safety case, the Inquirer reports.
That's far harsher than the typical penalty, the report states. In Pennsylvania, the gas-safety cases can drag on for as long as five years and result in an average settlement of $47,000. Under the PUC deals, the utilities are allowed to settle cases without admitting wrongdoing.
To read the Inquirer report, click here.