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Duluth asks more residents to turn down heat

Officials urge people to conserve natural gas to avoid cutting off service to the eastern end of the city.

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A gauge shows how much gas is being pushed through the regulator station at the corner of Riveness and Morris Thomas roads in Hermantown in February 2021.
Tyler Schank / File / News Tribune
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DULUTH — As crews scramble to make repairs to one of the city's three major natural gas supply lines, officials are asking residents and businesses east of Lake Avenue to dial their thermostats down to 62 degrees until further notice.

By reducing the overall load on the municipal natural gas system, the city hopes to maintain adequate pressure and avoid the possibility of being forced to cut off service to some customers on the eastern end of Duluth. Early in the day, residents of Duluth's Woodland, Lakeside and Lester Park neighborhoods were asked to conserve natural gas. But at a 12:30 p.m. news conference, Mayor Emily Larson asked that more of the city reduce its consumption.

"We are doing this because we are trying not to overburden the entire system," she said. "We have a very significant gas leak that is not particularly dangerous. But we are being careful and cautious."

The impacted area represents about 25%-30% of Comfort System's natural gas customer base, according to Eric Shaffer, Duluth's chief engineer of utilities.

Larson said she could not predict when the problem will be resolved, but pledged to keep the public updated.

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"If we can keep it at 62 degrees in that general area, we feel confident that we can reduce enough of the load on our system to maintain service to everyone," said Greg Guerrero, Duluth's interim director of public works and utilities.

Contractors working near Michigan Street and 19th Avenue West on the $343 million Twin Ports Interchange project were driving piling Thursday afternoon and struck the gas supply line.

"The big push right now is to get the gas back on," said Pat Huston, major projects engineer for the Duluth-based office of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "We are working as a team with city of Duluth to make that happen."

Huston explained that the impacted line is in an isolated area of the project, and was a new line installed as part of the interchange project as a replacement of an aging line.

"There will be an investigation," Huston said.

The federal transportation department's Office of Pipeline Safety was on scene, and Huston confirmed MnDOT would be working with the feds, city and contractors to determine what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again on a year-round construction project that's expected to last until 2024.

Interchange construction is being conducted by a joint venture between Ames Construction, of Burnsville, Minnesota, and Kraemer North America, of Plain, Wisconsin.

Guerrero explained that the high water table in the area where the break occurred has complicated repairs, requiring workers to dewater the work site after excavating down to the damaged pipe.

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"We've had people working out in the cold all night. We've had people working on computers and at our sites, trying to turn valves and making adjustments on the fly so we could keep everyone warm overnight," he said.

The city system is fed from the west, and when natural gas pressure levels began to fall to concerning levels early Friday morning in subzero weather, residents in Duluth's easternmost neighborhoods were asked to immediately curtail their usage, before the area was expanded.

Crews will install a temporary sleeve around the damaged 12-inch gas main, Shaffer said. The city will likely wait until the return of warmer weather to complete a more permanent repair.

This story was updated at 3:31 p.m. Jan. 28 to reflect revised direction from the city regarding the portions of Duluth that are being asked to reduce gas usage; and updated again at 5:40 p.m. Jan. 28 to include comments from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. It was originally posted at 8:07 a.m. Jan. 28.

Related Topics: DULUTHENERGY AND MINING
Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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