A Day in the Life of a Gas Safety Engineer

Office of Performance and Transformation's Communication Representative Monica Drake follows different State of Michigan employees throughout the year

Heather David (second from left) with Char Buhler of Consumers Energy, Monica Drake of OPT, and Nick Assendelft, MPSC Public Information Officer 

During the four-year 94-mile Consumers Energy pipeline replacement project, it’s the duty of Heather David of the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to make sure everything is done correctly and in the best interest of the public’s safety.

This $610 million project, which is in its second phase, is replacing pipeline that is 70 years old. The new pipeline is being rerouted through more open land from Saginaw to Milford, away from population centers.

David is the gas safety engineer assigned to this project and is one of 11 field engineers employed by the MPSC throughout Michigan. She is responsible for the area in Michigan from Fenton to Tawas and is required to inspect any regulated pipeline construction and maintenance projects and respond to any incidents in this region.

David works with Consumers Energy, DTE Energy, and SEMCO on about 22 inspection projects. The Saginaw Trail Pipeline Project is one of the biggest projects she is monitoring, and she goes out to its construction site at least twice a month.

“I’m making sure Consumers Energy is compliant and following the federal and state regulations,” she said.

During an inspection, David will check the pipeline sections for corrosion and for coating defects. The coating is an epoxy that provides resistance to corrosion. She checks the spacing of the valves and the design specifications of the pipe — confirming the wall thickness, the diameter, and the yield strength. She also confirms the pipe’s markings to make sure the correct pipe was ordered and that it meets or exceeds the maximum allowable operating pressure.

David makes sure the welding is done in accordance with procedures, and she observes non-destructive testing to ensure there are no defects. She inspects both the large steel gas lines on a project such as the Saginaw Trail Pipeline and the much smaller plastic service lines that run to customers’ homes.

“I’m trying to prove everything is being done right. If the pipeline is designed and constructed properly, then it will last a long time and be less likely to fail,” she said.

But, sometimes, no matter how carefully MPSC field workers observe the construction of a pipe, it can still fail. Natural disasters and human error can occur, which is why David said, “In my opinion, responding to (failure) incidents is the most important part of my job.”

She said that one incident that affected her most was a house explosion with two fatalities that occurred only two weeks after she finished her job training.

“The homeowner owned his own construction company, and he was using his equipment to complete a home addition. While he was excavating, he snagged his gas service line with his equipment and caused a gas leak. Gas filled the home, which then exploded, and he and his wife were killed,” said David.

When there’s an incident such as this, the MPSC field worker in the area will respond. “We look at what went wrong, why, and how we can prevent it from reoccurring,” said David.

To avoid any issues with utility infrastructure, David advises all homeowners and excavators to do three things if they are undertaking a project: 1) Call MISS DIG 811 for free at least 72 hours prior to digging; 2) evacuate a building ASAP if there is any smell of gas inside and; 3) wait until the gas operator’s technicians clear the building before reentering.

“My top priority is to make sure the public is safe — whether it’s the homeowner or the gas operator,” said David.

These are just some of the things that David handles every day. From February through April, she inspects gas company procedures. From April to October or November it’s construction season, which means onsite inspections of multiple gas projects. In December and January, she works from her home office, attends trainings, and meets with other members of the Gas Operations staff at the MPSC office in Lansing to analyze incidents, learn best practices, and set goals and priorities.  

“Every day is different,” she said.

David, who earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Michigan Technological University, interned with the Michigan Department of Transportation while in college and then went to work for a sewer and water consultant before returning to work for the state. She wanted to be a part of the MPSC staff because she enjoys working with infrastructure, especially pipelines.

“It’s interesting because there’s so much to it. I think natural gas is so interesting. I get to see every piece of the process – from storage, to compression, to the transmission pipelines, to the regulation at the city gate, to the plastic distribution main, and to the service lines that lead up to the homes,” she said.

“I love what I do.”