by Wallace Jones
Director, Gas Pipeline Safety
Alabama Public Service Commission

The other day I had the chance to hear a speaker describe a post that he had been told about on social media. It came from someone who was traveling through a different area of the country. This person had a natural gas background, so their focus was on natural gas facilities that were visible as they drove through the countryside. This person even took some pictures of some of the facilities they saw. Apparently, the pictures left this person somewhat upset over what was visible as they drove through the area. The post showed a picture of some facilities captioned: “We have to do better.” That tells me that what this person saw did not meet their standards. How would you feel if someone posted a picture of your facilities and made that same comment? Wouldn’t you want to do something about it? I think we all would.

Unfortunately, we do not have to leave Alabama to see examples of this. And this not only relates to natural gas, but other utilities as well. If you get out and ride, you will notice examples of facilities that are not being kept up to what we could consider as the “standard.” Poles and lines leaning, boxes bent over and rusted, pipes above-ground that are rusted and in need of attention. Yes, “we have to do better” than this.

We are all part of the solution to bring our infrastructure back to the way we envision it should be. We can let the utilities know when we spot something that doesn’t look right. As a regulatory agency, we do that all the time. We take pictures and send to the utilities and ask for an explanation of why the item looks the way it does. As citizens we can do that also. I realize that most companies now are working in the “do more with less” mentality, but at what point does that cease to be an effective way to run an organization?

While they are letting their infrastructure decay from lack of maintenance, it can be costly in several ways. Yes, maintenance can be expensive, but it can cost even more to replace the facility if it gets to the point of not being repairable. It can cost even more when that un-maintained facility is the cause of an accident or incident and someone is hurt or critically injured. That cost could be beyond our comprehension. “We have to do better” to keep our facilities up to the standards we would expect our personal items (house, vehicles) to be kept. Decaying, rotten, rust-covered facilities are not the standard we want or need.

This does not apply just to the employees of the companies that own the facilities. The average citizen needs to take a better stand to help the operators see things through the individual’s eyes. Does this look good? Is this the way they keep all their facilities? If they don’t care about the facilities that can be seen, what about the segments that can’t be seen? Do they do a better job on those segments? Should I call and complain or ask about their maintenance procedures? From my own experience, I called an electric company and the local telephone and cable companies about a large tree that fell over some aerial lines last year. I felt that, given the size of the tree, it would eventually exert enough force on the lines to create a problem. This year, the tree finally rotted and fell off the lines. Nothing was ever done by any of the companies.

And it is not just the sense of sight that is part of the issue. The sense of smell gets involved. Being in my position as a natural gas regulator, I take it very seriously when someone calls to report an odor. This past Monday, one of our Commission employee’s wives smelled a strong odor while driving through a local town. She told her husband about it. I did not find out until Friday of that week. Fortunately, the employee told me the smell had disappeared by the time he got around to telling me about it. So, it is not just employees of the utilities, it is every one of us. “We must do better” if we expect our facilities to be in the condition we expect. We all must do our due diligence to report issues to the operators if we expect issues to get resolved.

“We have to do better” is not just a jingle that we should remember. It is a positive statement of how we should conduct ourselves each day. We certainly do not want to go in the other direction. Nothing will be done to correct the inadequacies we might notice if we do not take a stand and speak up and say, “We have to do better.”