Major safety changes are coming throughout our region because of last year's deadly gas explosion in Allentown. UGI Utilities has agreed to replace all 400 miles of its aging cast iron gas pipes over the next 14 years. Some critics, however, want to see the work done even faster.
It looked innocent enough -- a stretch of underground pipe dating back to the 1920s -- but that one pipe was responsible for an explosion that killed five people and levelled an entire city block in February 2011. The blast still means painful memories for those living nearby.
"It's just sad that somebody has to die in order for them to go around and change the pipes," said neighbor Raymond Jackson.
After the explosion, state regulators came down hard on Reading-based gas provider UGI, citing the company for several safety violations. The company disputes those findings, but is now proposing a settlement. Under the deal, the utility would replace all of its cast iron gas lines -- some almost 100 years old -- within the next 14 years.
"We think this is a good settlement for communities and our customers," said UGI spokesman Joseph Swope.
Customers would not see a rate increase for at least two years under the settlement, even though UGI estimates the bill at more than a billion dollars.
"It costs us about 600 thousand dollars, maybe a little bit more, to replace a mile of infrastructure," said Daniel Adamo, UGI's new business director.
Some critics believe the utility should do the work even faster, within 10 or 12 years.
"There's a lot more to do actually," said state Sen. Lisa Boscola (D - Easton). "I'd like to see that replacement schedule down to 10, 12 years."
According to Swope though, getting the job done in 14 years will already mean hiring many new worker, as well as outside contractors.
"It's not just one area, but we'll need resources across the company," he said, citing the need for administrative staff and project managers to organize the work.
It will also require unprecedented cooperation with cities. In a pilot program, UGI now uses mapping software to coordinate road work with the city of Allentown.
Queen City Mayor Ed Pawlowski, who's pushed for speedier gas line replacement, issued a statement saying, “The city will take the necessary time to review the [settlement] petition and determine if it meets our expectations."
This isn't a done deal yet. A judge still has to review this settlement, and there will be time for the public to make comments as well.