Monticello, MN- Eric O’Link, Monticello Times – The Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety announced the cause, last week, of a deadly natural gas explosion in Ramsey that destroyed a building and killed three people Dec. 28.

The cause was a faulty gas line component that was not up to code and allowed gas to leak from the pipe into the ground.

Following the Office of Pipeline Safety’s determination, CenterPoint Energy officials said they would review records for components installed in gas lines in 40 Minnesota communities– including Monticello.

Depending on the completeness of records, CenterPoint may have to dig up thousands of connections to verify that the gas line components are up to code.

“Just the fact that you are on that list doesn’t mean you’ve got any,” Charles Kenow, administrator of the Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety, told the Times Monday. “That’s part of (CenterPoint’s) service area and that’s one of the areas they’ll be checking, along with all the other ones.”

The component determined to be at fault for the Dec. 28 Ramsey blast was a metal coupler that joined two plastic 1-inch gas pipes. The Office of Pipeline Safety said the coupler was not designed to connect the plastic gas pipes and that over time, freezing and thawing might have contributed to a break in the seal. That break allowed gas to seep into the soil over an undetermined amount of time and eventually led to the explosion.

That explosion leveled a small office building occupied by Premier Commercial Properties and Riverview Commercial Bank. Lois Self, 49, and Lorraine Melton, 35, both Elk River residents, died in the explosion, as did Ann Talle, 43, of Anoka.

“This (component) was not designed properly to be used on plastic pipes,” Kenow said. He added that some metal couplings were designed to safely connect to plastic pipes, but even those components were no longer used. Today, gas lines are plastic, fused together with heat to prevent leaks.

Kenow added that the Office of Pipeline Safety, which formed in 1987, is unaware of the component being used elsewhere in the state.

“This is the first that we’ve seen of this kind,” he said.

The metal connector in question was installed in 1980 by North Central Public Service Co. Midwest Gas Co. bought that utility in 1986, and CenterPoint Energy acquired Midwest in 1993.

CenterPoint Energy is now reviewing records to determine if similar faulty couplers, not up to current codes, exist elsewhere in the former Midwest service area. But because the records CenterPoint acquired from Midwest are incomplete according to CenterPoint’s standards, it’s possible that pipes may need to be dug up and inspected.

Monticello, Monticello Township, Big Lake and Big Lake Township are included in the service area that CenterPoint is investigating.

“When those cities were put out, it was just to show the total service area that the previous company, which CenterPoint Energy purchased, had facilities,” Kenow said. “It doesn’t mean that there’s a problem.”

CenterPoint spokesman Rolf Lund told the Times Monday that the utility was currently doing a records search and field test to determine where pipes might have to be unearthed.

“When we talk about these 43 communities being part of the former Midwest service area, that’s kind of the largest possible scope, and we’re narrowing that down right now,” Lund said. “We don’t know what type of work will be done in Monticello, or how many customers will have their lines replaced. But hopefully in the next several days we should have some more definitive answers.”

Lund said CenterPoint would fix any faulty lines this year.

“We’ve made a commitment to our customers and to the Office of Pipeline Safety that we will be replacing all couplings that do not meet standards by winter,” he said.

Kenow aid the Office of Pipeline Safety would monitor CenterPoint’s investigation. He said lines would be replaced only if the components on the lines did not meet current code standards.

“We’ve already been working with them and identifying areas,” he said. “We will be on the scene when they’re digging (pipes) up and checking on them.”

Kenow added that he expected CenterPoint to update its proposed investigation/digging plan within the week.

And he reminded people to exercise caution if the odor of natural gas is present.

“We always remind people that if you do smell any gas, either in your house, or outside in your lawn, to make sure and call the local gas company and let them check it out,” he said. “Don’t just assume there’s not a problem.”