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NorthWestern officials talk safety, responsibility

Freeman Courier of Freeman, South Dakota

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Natural gas system is safe when used correctly, officials say at public meeting in Menno

Officials from Northwestern Energy, the natural gas and electricity utility that serves customers in Menno, assured Menno residents that the gas system serving the community is safe.

"We have one of the safest systems in the country when stacked up against other utilities, said Curt Pohl, vice president of operations for the company.

The company hosted the meeting at the Menno City-School Auditorium Tuesday evening, Sept. 21, in response to an Aug. 23 Park Street house explosion that killed local resident Gail Guthmiller. The cause of the explosion is widely believed to have been natural gas.

About 300 residents turned out for the meeting, which featured informational presentations on North Western's utility system and infrastructure, a pair of video presentations on natural gas safety and a question and answer session with the on-hand officials.

Much of the information presented clarified the roles and responsibilities of Northwestern itself and the public itself as natural gas customers.

NorthWestem and other utilities often pipe natural gas into the region using large, high-pressure lines. Those lines are then split off a regulator station into a much lower-pressure system that runs beneath the streets and alleys of a community up to the connection at a home or business.

It is at this point that ownership and care of the line ceases for NorthWestem. The customer is responsible for upkeep on all internal lines and natural gas appliances.

"That's where NorthWestem ownership stops, said Mike Sydow, operations manager for South Dakota and Nebraska.

Following the explosion last month, NorthWestem checked the integrity of their system in Menno and found that it was up to standards.

"We tested our system and it held, Pohl said.

Homeowners can be on the alert for problems that could be dangerous and had several pieces of advice for those who have natural gas service in their homes.

Get out of the house and contact first responders from another location if the smell of natural gas is detected.

Have gas appliances inspected annually.

Consider the purchase of a natural gas detector.

Avoid building structures over gas lines or in front of meters.

Do not tamper with meters or valves.

Do not pass off the smell of natural gas for another household odor.

Be aware of other indicators of a potential gas leak, such as a blowing or hissing sound, bubbling pools of water or discolored vegetation.

Officials at the meeting stressed that by staying alert and knowing the signs of danger, natural gas is a safe and reliable utility.

After the planned presentation, the NorthWestem representatives opened the floor up to questions from the audience. Several questions arose about the use of a natural gas detector. NorthWestem officials agreed that natural gas detectors are useful, but they should not be relied upon solely.

Officials also stressed that those who purchase such a detector should defer to the manufacturer's instructions when operating one.

Another question from the audience concerned natural gas appliance inspections and who was qualified to perform them. NorthWestem officials said most HVAC professionals should be able to perform those kinds of inspections. Such inspections were recommended.

Another question concerned the concentration of odor in natural gas.

Pohl said there should be more than enough odor element to the gas for anyone to readily detect it

"We're required to be detectable, Pohl said, adding that NorthWestem edges closer to the lower part of the detectable spectrum, meaning even small amounts of natural gas should be detectable to the nose.

NorthWestem officials also said they did not know what caused the explosion and that the investigation continues. Tom Glanzer, a spokesperson for NorthWestem Energy, made it clear, however, that the company was on board to do whatever it could to improve their system and to educate their customers about the ins and outs of natural gas safety.

The tragic loss last month was a wakeup call for many, G lanzer said.

"As a community of NorthWestem employees, we feel your loss. It changed the way we live and look at our homes. And that's good, Glanzer said.

Copyright 2011 Freeman Courier, Freeman, South Dakota. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: September 29, 2010

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