The city of Fairhope issued a news release today refuting rumors its municipally owned and operated gas department had been “shut down.” The city stated it has been working with the Alabama Public Service Commission to resolve issues from a 2019 annual audit but had only temporarily suspended new service connections in June while the system was “assessed.”
The assessment was completed three weeks later, according to the city, and on Aug. 10, the City Council awarded contracts for mitigation to be completed before Dec. 31.
“In 2019, the annual audit from the Public Service Commission (PSC) showed that the city had not completed required inspection and repair of unprotected gas services along with concerns regarding cathodic protection,” the city reported. “After these violations were noted, members from the Gas Department met with the PSC and completed a plan for mitigation of the issues. During the remainder of 2019 and into 2020, a portion of this work was completed but demand for new construction led to the work on unprotected services and cathodic protection not being completed. On June 17 and 18, 2020, the audit for calendar year 2019 was completed and again it was noted that the required maintenance was insufficient. Once the results of the audit were shared with Operations Director Mike Allison and Mayor Karin Wilson, the Gas Department was instructed to pause installing new construction and new services for generators until a plan for mitigation was developed. Along with this, changes were made to staffing and management responsibilities of the Gas Department.”
On July 13, Allison told the City Council the department was deficient in “a few areas,” but were three years behind in unprotected gas services. A second issue with cathodic protection, which sends an electrical current down the gas lines to protect them from corrosion, was hampered by at least 11 known defects in the system, “so it’s not fully protecting the pipe.” The PSC also cited the department for failing to document its emergency training and on customer notification issues.
Allison suggested the department did not have the staffing levels necessary to keep up with ongoing maintenance issues and requests for new service.
“We shouldn’t be in this situation, we should have been doing our maintenance instead of new construction,” Allison said. “If you can’t maintain what you have it makes no sense to add more. So we’ve shifted the focus of the gas department to where we’re not doing any new subdivisions. We’re asking the contractors to do those now. What we need to do is try to find a way to incentivize developers to install gas infrastructure for us going forward, because we just don’t have all the crews to do all our maintenance — we have 600 miles of maintenance — plus all this new stuff as well.”
According to the city’s news release today, “on June 25, 2020, a notice was put out informing customers that we would be delaying the installation of new services for up to six weeks while we assessed the system. The assessment was completed and a plan developed within three weeks. During that three-week period, Fairhope Utilities continued to respond to emergencies and install gas mains and other services. The department also completed several service installations for generators needed to support life safety needs. RFP’s for the mitigation plan were expedited to get contractors on board to assist with mitigation by December 31, 2020. These contracts were awarded Aug. 10 by the City Council and the contractors will soon be on site to complete the work. Moving forward, all work for the Gas Department has been reprioritized in such a way that ensures this required maintenance is completed each year and that the system is operated as safely and efficiently as possible. This includes asking developers to install new gas infrastructure for their subdivisions much as they currently do for water and wastewater. The PSC has made no mention or has expressed no intention to shut the Gas Department down.”
The council awarded the low bid of $585,000 to Equix Energy Services of Milton, Fla.
The city didn’t suggest where the rumor originated, but during a political forum for mayoral candidates Tuesday hosted by the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce, former Community Affairs Director and mayoral candidate Sherry Sullivan mentioned in her closing comments, “the Public Service Commission has also shut down the Gas Department.” Sullivan made the comment while suggesting the city’s utilities have been mismanaged.
Sullivan was attending a meet-and-greet this evening and was not immediately available to comment.
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