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SCC vs. WGL: What’s Next?

State and gas company disagree over report.

— The Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) determined that Washington Gas Company [WGL] committed 11 "probable violations" in regard to the December 2010 explosion in Brookfield. But the gas company believes otherwise.

"My people investigated it, and we gave [WGL] an opportunity to review our report," said Massoud Tahamtani, director of the SCC’s Division of Utility and Railroad Safety. "They met with us Dec. 21 [2011] and disagreed with a lot of the things we said."

So the SCC told WGL to put its concerns in writing and, on Jan. 6, it did. "They argued their points and asked us to dismiss those violations," said Tahamtani. "After reading their response, we called them back, a week or so later, and said we’re not changing our minds."

The SCC is a court of record, with three commissioners who are also judges. So if this issue goes forward, they’ll decide whether to uphold the violations.

"By Virginia and federal law, the Commission is authorized to penalize gas companies for violations of the federal and state Pipeline Safety Regulations," said Tahamtani. Or, he said, the matter could be settled monetarily, out of court.

"I called [WGL’s] vice president and said we’d have to agree to disagree," said Tahamtani. "We met Jan. 19 and he asked if we’d reconsider four of the violations. [Tahamtani declined to reveal which four]. They said they’d give us more information and, on Jan. 23, they did."

Last Friday, Jan. 27, he said he and two of his staff members were still looking at it. "If we agree that we should change any of our findings or violations, we’ll notify WGL," said Tahamtani. "We’ll also ask if they’re interested in settling out of court."

If WGL is amenable to that idea, the SCC would prepare a settlement package. It would still allege the violations, but WGL wouldn’t have to either admit to or deny them. Also contained would be a dollar amount WGL would have to pay to settle the case.

In addition, said Tahamtani, the settlement would probably include remediation measures "to hopefully improve their operating procedures and, therefore, improve general pipeline safety. They have two weeks to decide what to do."

If WGL chooses to settle, agrees to the measures and sends a check, then the SCC will send the entire package to the judges. However, Tahamtani said there might be negotiation back and forth before this point is reached. But, he stressed, "We’re going to stand our ground."

It’s ultimately up to the judges to accept or reject the settlement; but if either side rejects it, the matter would go to court. Until then, said Tahamtani, the judges aren’t privy to the full report or all the details of the incident. They only see the particulars of the settlement, the written violations and WGL’s response.

"And then, in court, the burden of proof falls on my staff," he said. "But WGL already told us they don’t want to go to court and, if we can avoid it, we will."

Meanwhile, Tahamtani hasn’t forgotten about the Brookfield residents. "I know the community wants to know whether their homes are safe," he said. "Although nobody can really guarantee that about a system put in in the 1950s. You can’t say with 100-percent certainty that everything’s safe down there."

But, he added, "We’re still looking at WGL’s overall leak-survey program to see if they’re doing it properly and if there was a leak before that they didn’t address. We’ll also decide if the program they have for determining pipe corrosion is adequate. We want to see if there’s something else WGL should have noticed before [the explosion] and if there’s something else that could happen out there."

Tahamtani said the SCC is looking at WGL’s data, history and past practices. It also wants to learn whether there’s "something else they missed and need to fix out there. We’ll still hold their feet to the fire; we’re very serious about pipe safety."

Regarding the home’s uncapped gas line mentioned in the SCC’s Nov. 30, 2011 report, he said that before the Nguyens bought that house, it used to have a kitchen upstairs. When it was moved to the ground floor, the gas line leading to its original location was left uncapped in the wall.

"But it was connected to the gas piping in the house," said Tahamtani. "We don’t know if this played a part in the explosion."

Some of the probable violations cited by the SCC dealt with the copper gas-service lines in the neighborhood. If the SCC concludes there are systemic failures with these lines, said Tahamtani, it will order WGL to replace them all. "We’re looking at all the leaks in the copper pipes there to see how far back they go and if there’s any trend," he said. "We’re not done, yet."

He also noted that, if the Brookfield community wants the SCC to attend a meeting and provide some answers to the residents, it will do so. Meanwhile, it’s waiting for WGL’s response to its investigation report — but not for long.

"We’re fast-tracking this — we’re not playing games," said Tahamtani. "Over the next 30 days, we’ll know if we’ll settle or go to court. But the bigger concern is: Do we need to do something about that system out there?"