State regulators file formal investigation into underground explosions linked to IPL

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Indiana utility regulators filed a formal investigation Friday into repeated underground explosions linked to Indianapolis Power & Light.

No one with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) remembers the last time the commission took this step. Previous investigations focused on specific incidents.

"As you may know, the commission has addressed IPL's network failures in the past," said IURC Chairperson Carol Stephan. "But, despite these discussions and efforts, IPL has experienced continued failures in its network facilities, resulting in a risk to public safety."

Indiana utility regulators called an emergency meeting for Friday to look into IPL's underground network after the Thursday morning explosions in downtown Indianapolis.

13 Investigates found a long paper trail that shows a decade of explosions in downtown Indianapolis, all linked to IPL. They show the Commission and IPL have been trying unsuccessfully to fix the problem for years.

Thursday, several underground explosions tossed several manhole covers into the air. IPL says the blasts are the result of arcing 120-volt cables underground. The power company says Monday's incident on Massachusetts Avenue are the result of an electrical failure in a 13,000-volt termination chamber.

Calling an emergency meeting is an unusual move for the IURC. The Commission says it wants to look in to IPL's "ongoing investment in, and operation and maintenance of, its underground network facilities."

The formal investigation announced Friday will look at the entire downtown network — examining maintenance equipment inspections and response plans for emergencies.

According to documents, IPL has complied with roughly two dozen recommendations and spent millions of dollars but the problems persist.

"We're going to actually get some outside consultants to help us to see if we're missing something," said Joe Bentley with IPL. "But, we learn from every single event we have and is our system better? Absolutely in the last 4-5 years. We've taken some steps to mitigate when things do happen and I think we're seeing the positive result of that."

After a similar explosive event in 2011, the Commission asked an independent consultant to evaluate IPL's electrical network. In its final December 2011 report, O'Neill Management Consulting, LLC wrote, "there is an immediate need to improve the process by which IPL finds, documents, and remediates failures in its electrical system in downtown Indianapolis."

The Commission hired the same consulting firm again in August 2014 after another underground explosion. The report issued after that review, had a similar finding. The O'Neill auditors emphasized "the need for improvements…in certain systems and processes that might have provided more and better information about the proximate root cause of this incident."

IPL issued its own root cause analysis report, and as a result, the Commission identified five key areas for IPL to address: equipment replacement, public safety, emergency plans, succession planning for key managers and staff and documentation. In January, IPL released its updated action plan.  

IPL says it will spend millions to replace underground equipment - like the transformer that failed last August - causing an explosion and evacuation along Meridian Street.

The company is also replacing manhole covers with lids that rise only a few inches to relieve underground pressure and settle back down, instead of becoming airborne. So far, IPL says it has replaced about 360 of its 1,000 downtown manhole covers.

Kerwin Olson, executive director of the energy watchdog Citizens Action Coalition, says IPL is not doing enough to make its underground electrical system safer. He also focuses blame on state regulators he says are not doing enough to follow up on the recommendations in the reports.

"Consumers need protection and consumers should expect more from the elected officials who are responsible for protecting the public," Olson told 13 Investigates senior reporter Bob Segall. "We have these reports and analysis saying this is what you should do, but who's making them do it? Nobody."

Power company testing videos show what happens when electrical terminals short out and transformers explode. The heat and the force of the explosions can trigger serious damage and disruption to an entire electrical grid.

You can watch video from the PG&E test facility in San Ramon, California as they demonstrate a 480-volt arc flash, the same kind of explosion that is responsible for at least some of the trouble in Indianapolis. Another video shows an explosion used to train new linemen about the dangers.