Extra Peoples Gas charge ruled illegal

October 3, 2011

In this Intelligence Report: what the ruling means for the safety of a decaying system.

The pipeline replacement project has already been under way for 20 years but isn't even close to being half done. With each day the old original piping becomes more corroded, according to experts, and more dangerous.

Now, with work slowed to a crawl because of the economy, cutting off the customer-based funding raises new doubts.

The project that wouldn't be finished until 2080, according to some estimates, was put on a fast track to completion two years ago when the Illinois Commerce Commision approved making customers a rehab charge.

Under the new court decision, Peoples has to stop billing customers for the pipeline project.

The pipeline fee was overturned in a 52-page appellate panel opinion Monday that stated "Peoples' project doesn't meet the criteria for such a customer fee" and that the charge "will have an upward impact on utility profits," suggesting that isn't reason enough for customers to cough up more money every month. It was sent back to the Illinois Commerce Commission to reconsider the case of the new pipeline.

"Until this accident happened, you just take it for granted that everything under ground is safe," said Kris Gryga, widow.

As the I-Team reported last year, Gryga's husband, a veteran Peoples Gas employee, was killed while working on an underground project in downtown Chicago. Mike Gryga was pressure testing decades-old pipeline sections to see if they were still safe or needed to be replaced.

In 2010, the day Michael Gyrga was killed, Peoples Gas "failed to comply with specific procedures for pressure-testing pipelines," according to federal investigators who found a "glaring and intentional disregard of their own safety procedures" that would have "prevented this tragic event."

"Making sure it's not going to happen again to another family, that's what's important to me," said Kris Gryga.

Gryga's widow filed a wrongful death suit against the contractor that worked in the Peoples Gas project. The case is now in discovery but isn't the only one to question pipeline safety. An investigation for state regulators last year found dozens of upgrades ordered four years earlier were incomplete and identified a number of system and personnel problems related to pipeline safety.

A Peoples Gas official says their pipes are all different ages but that is only one factor contributing to system integrity.

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