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Rogers Park 'Guinea Pig' for Peoples Gas Main Construction

By Benjamin Woodard | August 11, 2014 5:42am
 Peoples Gas, which is part of Chicago-based Integrys Energy Group, will spend $2.5 billion to replace 2,000 miles of pipe throughout the city.
Peoples Gas Work
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ROGERS PARK — In July, West Rogers Park resident Christine Kreutz awoke to Peoples Gas contractors tearing up her backyard patio.

The workers — armed with her garden hose to suppress the dust created by their concrete-cutting saw — were there to replace aging lines that feed natural gas to her town home.

Similar scenes have been familiar to Rogers Park residents since the summer of 2011, when the natural gas utility, owned by Integrys Energy Services, began a 20-year, $2.5 billion project to replace 2,000 miles of century-old, rusty pipes with plastic ones.

Peoples Gas tells Ben Woodard that it's listening to complaints and making adjustments moving forward:

The project requires tearing up large swaths of the city, including Kreutz's backyard, her parkway and her street.

A month after the workers left her yard — and as Peoples Gas wraps up work in Rogers Park and moves on to other areas of the city — her patio still hasn't been replaced, despite calls to the company and her alderman.

"I really think nothing can be done," she said.

But Jennifer Block, a spokeswoman for Integrys, although unable to comment directly on Kreutz's patio, said the company has changed its ways to be less disruptive to residents.

"We've definitely learned," she said earlier this month, wearing a hard hat and steel-toed boots at a new work site in Portage Park, one of the neighborhoods up next for main replacements. "People need to know that every step along the way we've listened to our customers. We've learned, and we're doing things differently."

So far, Peoples Gas and its contractors have replaced 450 miles of cast-iron pipeline. By 2031, about half of the city's 4,000 miles of pipeline will be upgraded. Residents' indoor gas meters also will be moved outside so the utility can better access them, Block said.

All that work requires a lot of coordination between crews and residents, she said.

In Rogers Park, the work had been completed in sections, some containing as many as 20 blocks. For each section, restoration work was done last.

That means that front yards, parkways and streets remained torn up for months.

So now crews are working faster and in "smaller chunks" to "lessen the burden" on residents, she said.

"It came through very clear to us that they [residents] wanted us to come in, saturate the area, get as much done as they can in a short timeframe, restore, and be gone," she said. "That's what we're doing here in Portage Park."

Crews are also now using a technique called "directional drilling," rather than trench digging, to lay pipe.

"It's less disruptive," she said. "You still have to break up sidewalks, but not as many."

The city also has changed its rules regulating the way in which Peoples Gas crews restore streets that it's torn up, said Peter Scales, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Before, when the project started, the utility was required to patch the street 3 feet in all directions around the hole it dug, Scales said. Now, the hole has to be patched 5 feet in every direction and from the curb all the way to the asphalt's "joint," or to about the middle of the street.

"It’s good for the city, because then utilities are taking up more of the resurfacing," he said.

In the end, the pipes will be safer, easier to repair and carry gas at a higher pressure — at 22 pounds per square inch instead of less than 1 pounds per square inch, officials say.

'Guinea pigs'

Despite the changes, residents in Rogers Park continue to complain.

"I love that we were the guinea pigs for all this," said Chris Betz, 45, with a hint of sarcasm. Betz lives with his family in the 7500 block of North Sheridan Road.

Betz, a lifelong resident of Rogers Park, said he's still waiting for Peoples Gas workers to restore a patch of grass in his yard.

"We can’t even get a piece of grass planted here for a 5-by-5-foot area?" he said. "It’s been a crazy horrible situation, and it’s lingering."

He said the work started about Thanksgiving when crews tore up his gangway used by several residents of a row of town homes.

"I had all these neighbors who couldn’t walk through, take out their garbage or leave their driveways," he said.

Betz also criticized Peoples Gas for restricting parking on his street for months in anticipation of doing work, but then never actually doing any work there.

Block said better coordination with the city and its crews should help alleviate the problems.

Earlier this month, Portage Park resident Stanley Chmielewski let Peoples Gas workers into his home to move his meter outside.

He said he didn't have much to complain about.

"They're doing great," he said, "in record time."

'I went down and took it all on my face'

Kreutz said she plans to wait until the end of the month to fix her patio herself. A contractor told her he'd patch it for $750.

She also filed a lawsuit in March against Peoples Gas, Integrys and the City of Chicago.

In September, Kreutz said she tripped at dusk on a section of sidewalk outside her home that Peoples Gas contractors had busted-up and filled with sand, which had settled below the level of the rest of the sidewalk.

"I went down and took it all on my face," she said.

The tumble left two permanent scars on her face, and she lost a tooth, she said.

Block said she couldn't discuss the matter further "due to pending litigation."

To make the necessary work easier for other residents, Kreutz said, Peoples Gas should communicate to residents exactly when work will take place and provide a person residents can talk to if they have a problem, while "taking basic precautions for people’s safety."

"I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s been hurt," she said. "Some people wouldn't be as kind as me."

Block said Peoples Gas would continue to adapt.

"This is invasive," she said. "We've learned a lot along the way."

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