PUCO Taking Heat For Fiery Pipeline Explosions


UPDATED: Thursday November 8, 2012 7:00 PM

A 10 Investigates story about exploding pipelines is bringing sharp criticism for the state agency in charge of utilities.

State regulators said that they could not do more because the federal government is in charge- a statement critics say is simply not true.

Two New photos of a massive explosion that rocked Athens County one year ago obtained by 10 Investigates show a pipeline with a history of failures throughout Ohio and the country. These types of failures light up the sky, flatten homes and rattle lives.

“It was a scary experience for everybody and not just on the farm, but everyone in our community,” Richard Zehentbaur said.

Henry Eckhart was the head of Ohio's Public Utilities Commission, known as the PUCO, back in the early 1970's. He is concerned by what 10 Investigates has uncovered.

“Obviously, it’s going to have problems,” Eckhart said.

10 Investigates found a pattern of problems with the Tennessee Gas Pipeline.

During the investigation, 10 Investigates found the line had ruptured and exploded several times since 2010. 10TV found the aging line was constructed in the 1940s nationwide and in Ohio in the 1950s and 60s-- back when, according to federal government documents, welding inspections were "not required."

There was something else, 10 Investigates found a pattern nobody had previously reported--all of the problems in Ohio involved welding failures, called girth welds.

From his Texas home, pipeline engineer Don Deaver explained the danger.

“This is definitely a pattern that has to be addressed,” Deaver said. “It's showing the age and affects and that the time to respond and take corrective action is overdue.”

Two experts 10 Investigates spoke with said that the PUCO shares responsibility with the federal government to regulate pipelines. As someone who once ran the PUCO, Eckhart said that it needs to take action.

“I think the first thing they should have to do is have a hearing and ask, ‘What are you doing to maintain that old pipeline?’” Eckhart said.

10 Investigates found that the PUCO does not seem interested in a hearing. The commission took five weeks to turnover public records, refuses to speak about the issue on camera, and recently sent 10 Investigates a statement essentially saying it was someone else's problem.

A PUCO spokesman sent 10 Investigates emails that said the commission cannot do anything more, because the federal government keeps it from regulating the pipeline. Eckhart says that is not true. He cites several state laws that say the PUCO is "vested with the power and jurisdiction to supervise and regulate (pipelines that run)...wholly or partly within this state."

“That's the statute that tells the public utilities commission what to do and they're just not doing it,” Eckhart said. “They're hiding.”

PUCO says it has done all it can-- and the five weeks it took to turn over records was not a stalling tactic---but a reasonable time for its attorneys.

Finally, the federal agency involved says it directed the company to take action but could not give 10 Investigates details.

A spokesman for the federal government agency that oversees interstate lines said that he knows of no reason Ohio cannot hold hearings to require Tennessee Gas Pipeline to explain what it is doing to ensure safety. The representative said that only the federal government could force the company to follow laws and rules.

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