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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Avista begins restoring gas to customers after historic Palouse pipeline rupture

PULLMAN – Avista plans to begin relighting customers’ natural gas appliances Saturday after the Williams Pipeline it contracts with was ruptured earlier this week, wiping out service across much of the Palouse.

The energy company expects to have all of the nearly 37,000 affected customers restored by the end of Tuesday.

“We are aware of the hardship, the stress and the frustration that people are experiencing, particularly with the cold weather upon us,” Avista president Heather Rosentrater said at a news conference at the company’s Pullman service center Friday. “Our team is doing everything we can to expedite the work.”

After the incident, Avista deployed over 260 employees to go door-to-door to shut off the gas at every address, finishing Friday morning. This was a necessary step before the system could be repressurized. Now, workers must return to every address to turn it back on.

Avista released maps for seven communities, including on its website and emailed to customers, with estimates for when workers will visit each area by different zones beginning Saturday morning.

The sequence was prioritized by critical customers – such as hospitals, public safety and the airport – and by how the infrastructure is laid out , Rosentrater said.

Avista contracts with Williams Pipeline for use between Pullman and Colfax. The outage is the largest in Avista’s history and has affected service for Pullman, Clarkston, Palouse, Uniontown, Colton and Albion in Washington, and Moscow, Lewiston, Troy, Bovill, Deary and Genesee in Idaho.

The leak occurred Wednesday when the gas line was struck along U.S. Highway 195 between Colfax and Pullman. The highway was closed temporarily while crews assessed the danger.

Avista referred all questions about the incident to Williams, which did not have a representative at the news conference.

Williams did not answer questions from The Spokesman-Review but provided a brief written statement Thursday.

“There were no injuries, no fire, or explosion associated with the incident,” Williams wrote in its statement. “An assessment and repair team was quickly mobilized to repair the damage to the pipeline, and as of today, the repairs have been successfully completed.”

Scott Rukke, director of pipeline safety for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, said the rupture was caused by a landowner who was trying to install a 4-inch corrugated plastic drain line when he struck the pipeline with a plow and peeled a large hole in the top.

“This is the largest loss of customers that I’ve ever seen,” said Rukke, who has worked almost 45 years in the pipeline industry, first with Puget Sound Energy and then with the utilities commission.

Two investigators from the state agency were on scene Wednesday night through most of Thursday.

The rupture released a large amount of methane into the atmosphere. Exactly how much gas was leaked will be calculated based on the pressure and the size of the hole in the pipeline, Rukke said.

The 12.75-inch steel transmission pipeline was buried 41 inches deep.

“We measured it,” Rukke said.

The landowner did not call 811 for possible hazards before excavating, Rukke said.

The utilities commission enforces Washington’s dig laws. Rukke said there are certain agricultural exemptions from being required to call 811, but none of those exemptions apply to this case.

“The maximum depth where we would not have had to call was 20 inches if he was tilling, and this is not what he was doing,” Rukke said.

Rukke said there is a misdemeanor that could apply, but right now they are approaching it as a civil infraction.

“We are not in the business of criminal-type investigations, so we have asked for outside help in determining what course we are going to take,” Rukke said.

He emphasized the importance of calling before digging.

“You have to call 811 before you excavate,” Rukke said. “That’s the law.”

Mutual aid crews from eight utility companies across the West are assisting Avista with the relighting process, Rosentrater said.

“We will keep working until every customer is restored,” she said.

Josh DiLuciano, vice president of energy delivery for Avista, provided more details about how the restoration process will work for customers.

An Avista serviceperson will knock on their door, and an adult resident must be home to let them in.

“Customers do not need to call to schedule a relight,” DiLuciano said. “We have a plan and a process for all of the customers.”

Customers should not leave their homes unlocked.

If a resident is not home, Avista will leave a door hanger with a 1-800 number they can call to get on a list for them to come back.

All field personnel will have identification and will only be working between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

It is important that customers do not try to relight the gas themselves, which could be dangerous.

“Please do not take it upon yourself to do the relight,” DiLuciano said. “Wait for Avista to show up to do that work for you.”

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.