North Dakota utility regulators are looking at possible safety violations by Xcel Energy Inc. after a natural gas explosion demolished a Fargo duplex and injured 13 people.
Kevin Cramer, chairman of the state Public Service Commission, said Monday the agency will formally assign staffers to go over the case and recommend whether the Minneapolis-based utility should be fined following the September 2008 incident.
If sanctions are recommended, Xcel may ask for a hearing to contest them. The three-member commission will itself decide whether to punish Xcel, after reviewing records in the case. It can impose fines of up to $500,000.
The investigation will focus on whether Xcel followed natural gas pipeline safety rules, Cramer said.
"We could find that there was a violation without it having any relationship to the explosion," he said.
The commission scheduled a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the investigation.
A Public Service Commission report, obtained by The Associated Press, says there was a tiny hole and a crack where the plastic pipe that was supplying gas to the duplex joined a pipeline coupler near the building.
"Staff visual inspection of the coupler fusion joint from the failed pipe ... revealed that the joint was not straight," the report says.
Gray soil, which is a sign of a natural gas leak, was found at the footing of the building's foundation, as deep as eight feet underground, the report says. "The gray soil was dry and smelled strongly of natural gas odorant," it says.
Bonnie Lund, an Xcel spokeswoman, said the utility would review the report.
The pipe was manufactured by a now-defunct company, Century Utility Products Inc., and installed in the early 1970s. The U.S. Department of Transportation published a warning in March 1999 that pipe made by the company between 1970 and 1973 could be brittle and crack under stress.
The warning followed reports of a number of incidents involving the pipe, including a home explosion in Tuscola, Ill., in December 1979 and an October 1994 explosion and fire at a neighborhood bar in Waterloo, Iowa. The Iowa blast killed six people who were inside the bar and scattered debris 200 feet away, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report on the incident.
Xcel Energy has been replacing almost 20 miles of gas main and about 1,300 service lines, at an estimated cost of almost $4 million, Lund said Monday. The utility is examining another 4.6 miles of gas main and 2,700 service lines to decide whether they will be replaced, she said.
Most of the pipe being replaced was installed in Fargo, West Fargo and Grand Forks, where Xcel supplies electricity and natural gas to businesses and homes.