Berkshire Gas fixing about 99 non-hazardous leaks, replacing aging lines with modern lines

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PITTSFIELD >> The region fares better than the state average when it comes to natural gas line leaks per household and an ambitious investment from Berkshire Gas could improve the situation.

Embarking on a three-year, $20 million campaign, Berkshire Gas aims to replace natural gas line infrastructure made of cast iron and bare steel — inferior materials that are prone to leaks, according to company spokesman Christopher C. Farrell.

State-of-the-art plastic tubing is the preferred material for today's gas lines, he said.

Farrell said 99 non-hazardous leaks exist in the company's Pittsfield division, which also includes Lanesborough, Dalton, Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge and Great Barrington.

Natural gas leaks can be caused by cracks in piping material, bad connections between sections of pipe and other errors. Leaks are most common in the oldest infrastructure.

"The question is, 'Do you let these sit on the books?' " Farrell said. "And the answer is 'No.' "

The next two decades will see continued investment, with the definite aim of replacing all bare steel and cast iron pipes in Berkshire Gas' Western Massachusetts infrastructure before 2035.

"What this program does is you eliminate leaks and dramatically reduce the likelihood of future leaks and the frequency of repairs," Farrell said. "All of this will result in savings on rates for consumers."

The company began speeding up its repair schedule to replace aged infrastructure at home all over Pittsfield last summer, Farrell said.

The cost of the system upgrades largely will be borne by consumers.

In 2014, the Legislature passed a bill, five years in the making, that created a uniform classification system to assess the severity of leaks and setting repair time lines based on risk. The law also allowed utilities to more quickly recover the costs of repairs from customers in the form of higher rates.

As part of the law, state utility companies for the first time reported leak data to the state Department of Public Utilities.

Cambridge-based nonprofit the Home Energy Efficiency Team compiled the statewide data and put it online atheet.org in the latter part of 2015.

HEET's data differed from that given by Berkshire Gas, but Farrell explained this could have been related to the time line being used.

According to HEET, which obtained its information from Massachusetts DPU, Pittsfield had 106 leaks, the oldest dating back to 2008. HEET also reported 37 leaks in North Adams, 22 in Adams, 21 in Lenox, 11 in Lee and 3 in Great Barrington, among other Berkshires' locations.

HEET's President Audrey Shulman said the Berkshires is "doing pretty well."

"The fairest metric to measure this is in leaks per gas-using household," Shulman said. "The state average is 0.013 leaks per gas-using household, and the Berkshires' average is nearly half that, at 0.007."

Funded via private donations and using volunteer workers for most of its staff, HEET hopes to churn out updated state records in March when the new figures come in to the state DPU.

The group is advocating for two bills proposed to the Legislature, one of which would block gas companies from passing on the cost of lost gas to consumers and another which would require utilities to perform repairs alongside ongoing street projects.

U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey recently commissioned a federal study, which showed that natural gas consumers in Massachusetts paid up to $1.5 billion from 2000 to 2011 for gas that never made it to them because of leaks.

"It seems only fair to prevent utilities for billing us for this," Shulman said. "After all, you only pay for the gas that makes it into the tank of your car, right?"

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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