An Illinois-based gas distributor announced yesterday that propane deliveries to at least 12 states may have lacked odorants that normally alert homeowners to possible gas leaks. The announcement comes on the heels of a recently announced state government investigation.

On September 2, 2010, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley held a press conference to discuss an ongoing investigation of underodorized propane shipped throughout New England. The joint investigation, undertaken with the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services and the State Police, tracked the source of the underodorized gas through the distribution chain to a single facility in Westfield operated by DCP Midstream, LLC. DCP and at least six of the sites that received underodorized propane have volunteered to temporarily shut down operations. The investigation began following a gas explosion at a Norfolk, Massachusetts condominium in July 2010 that led to the death of a worker. State authorities believe the odor was insufficient for the worker to detect, resulting in the conditions leading up to the explosion.

At the press conference, Coakley indicated deliveries from the DCP facility extended to six New England States and New York. On September 7, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection announced that a cease and desist order was issued to at least one gas depot located in Torrington, Connecticut that received propane from a bulk distribution center in Westfield. The investigation in New England is expanding quickly and will likely include those responsible for shipping gas to the DCP facility. Odorization for propane and other combustible gases is required under both federal and state law. For propane, the U.S. Department of Transportation standard requires that the gas be detectable at one-fifth or 20 percent of the lower explosive limit (LEL). State laws are often more stringent.

While environmental criminal allegations appear likely in this case, the matter is sure to raise public relations and strategic communications challenges for the companies involved, not to mention potential regulatory and legislative actions.