Columbus, OH – Columbia Gas will check for leaks outside more than 1 million homes and businesses because of safety concerns raised by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

Pipes that connect gas meters to underground natural-gas supplies are the source of the concern.

Problems with the connecting pipes caused the death of a Cincinnati resident and nearly $1 million in property damage in Ohio this decade. The pipes, incorrectly installed, “can blow full gas pressure against a structure and cause significant damage,” according to a PUCO report.

Testing won’t require anyone’s lawn to be torn up, said Ken Stammen, Columbia Gas spokesman. The inspection will be conducted by a single worker with a hand-held detector. But that doesn’t mean the work won’t be time-consuming and expensive for Columbia Gas and Ohio’s other natural-gas utilities.

“It is a very large task,” Stammen said. “I’m told, in its scope, this is unprecedented.”

Columbia’s testing will cost $6 million to $8 million. It’s unclear how that will be paid for, but it’s possible the company could pass the cost to customers, with the PUCO’s approval.

“That’s something that the accountants and our regulatory folks will have to look at,” Stammen said. “If the commission doesn’t give us regulatory approval, we may have to eat it.”

Property owners, not utilities, own the pipes that connect meters to natural-gas supplies. That means if a leak is found, the cost of fixing it will fall to the property owner, at least, for now.

Only certain types of plastic pipes are at risk, said Alan Schriber, PUCO chairman. Metal pipes can leak, but when they do, the leaks aren’t as dangerous because they’re usually not as big.

Buildings usually are connected to natural-gas supplies by homebuilders or subcontractors. That means Columbia has no records to tell them which structures could be at risk.

“To find out where these things are, we’re going to survey everybody,” Stammen said. Work will begin soon, although he didn’t have an exact date.

The PUCO has asked the utilities to take responsibility for the pipes, noting that property owners likely don’t have the expertise to check for problems. The utilities have until Feb. 5 to comment on the request.

The PUCO might have ordered the utilities to check pipes once those proceedings are complete, possibly in March. But Schriber wrote to the utilities this week because he wanted the testing to begin sooner. The plastic pipes are at greater risk of leaking during winter months when the ground often freezes and thaws.

“For the sake of safety, we need to get to this right now,” Schriber said. “I don’t think there’s a general cause for alarm. To me, it’s a general recall.”