The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio approved an agreement that calls for Columbia Gas of Ohio to pay a $200,000 fine to the state – half the amount the PUCO initially indicated the company should pay after an explosion last March leveled an Upper Arlington house and damaged several others in the same neighborhood.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio approved an agreement that calls for Columbia Gas of Ohio to pay a $200,000 fine to the state – half the amount the PUCO initially indicated the company should pay after an explosion last March leveled an Upper Arlington house and damaged several others in the same neighborhood.

The unanimous vote on Wednesday, Jan. 20, also requires Columbia Gas to begin including global-positioning system (GPS) locations of curb boxes and other infrastructure in its internal records.

In addition, Columbia Gas must increase public outreach efforts designed to enhance knowledge of safety precautions that customers, emergency responders, municipal officials and other utilities throughout its service territory should take when natural gas is encountered.

"I think it goes without saying that the PUCO cares about safety," said Commissioner M. Beth Trombold, who also lives in Upper Arlington. "There's a number of specific acts that Columbia Gas is going to be taking.

"Our gas pipeline safety staff will be working closely with Columbia on all of those actions."

The fine and other requirements were worked out after March 21 explosion reduced a 2,224-square-foot house at 3418 Sunningdale Way to rubble.

No one was seriously hurt by the blast, which rendered seven other residences in the neighborhood uninhabitable and blew out windows, cracked drywall and caused other damages to another 22 houses.

According to the PUCO, the blast caused an estimated $9 million in property damage and took place because Columbia Gas failed to properly abandon and seal a natural-gas service line. That line was opened unwittingly and not shut off by a Columbus Water Department (CWD) worker the day before the blast.

Columbia Gas officials have stopped short of taking full responsibility for the explosion, noting the water department worker did not close an in-ground gas valve to an old line at 3418 Sunningdale that he mistook for a water line.

Company spokesman David Rau has said the incident culminated from a "very unique set of circumstances."

In August, the PUCO staff recommended that Columbia Gas be ordered to pay a $400,000 fine and be required to develop procedures for identifying inaccurate curb box locations in its pipeline systems, review service-line abandonment training protocols and educate government organizations it works with about possible hazards related to the unintended release of natural gas.

In December, however, the PUCO staff said it would support reducing the fine by half exchange for an agreement by Columbia Gas to take a series of steps to prevent similar disasters.

Columbia Gas must pay its $200,000 fine to the Ohio General Revenue Fund within 10 days of Wednesday's ruling, and hold an additional $200,000 in abeyance as collateral for failure to fulfill the conditions of the PUCO settlement.

"Any time there's an explosion, I'm personally concerned," PUCO Chairman Andre Porter said. "I'm personally concerned for the potential loss and impact to families.

"The settlement approved by the commission is much more than just a fine."

In a statement released after the hearing, Columbia Gas said it was "pleased that the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) approved the agreement reached with PUCO staff … as it will allow us to continue enhancing the safety of our system.

"Our customers expect safe and reliable delivery of natural gas to their homes and businesses. We are committed to the safe operation of our system and we will continue to deliver on those expectations."

Look for updates of this story in the Jan. 28 edition of ThisWeek Upper Arlington News.