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Utah utility regulators are launching a formal investigation into Questar Gas Co. back-billing at least 500 of its customers because the company's meters failed to properly record the natural gas they were using.

The Public Service Commission, which regulates the state's utilities, said it is asking the Division of Public Utilities, which serves as the commission's staff, to conduct the inquiry. It also is asking the Committee of Consumer Services, whose role it is to serve as the voice for consumers in utility matters, to help in the probe.

In an announcing the inquiry, the PSC said its rules allow customers to delay paying the disputed portion of their utility bills pending a resolution of the case.

Lori Garcia of Santa Clara, who found an extra $1,064 charge on her February natural gas bill, said Tuesday she was encouraged by the PSC's action.

"I've been hoping that a light bulb will go off in someone's head in state government. I could understand if I owed money because of a billing error. But this had to do with their equipment not being checked to make sure it was operating properly."

Questar Gas four years ago began installing transmitters on its customer's natural gas meters. Those transmitters allowed company trucks driving through neighborhoods to automatically record the natural gas consumption of each home and eliminated the need for most meter readers.

Late last year, the company installed new software in the computers inside its trucks and discovered that more than 500 consumers paid for less than they had used. Questar estimated that each affected consumer owed an average of $1,200, and it set out to back-bill each one with letters notifying them of the problem.

Questar believes that it is entitled go back on billing for up to two years when a problem is discovered with its meters. And a representative said Tuesday the utility is looking forward to working with the affected consumers to resolve the issue.

"We're mailing new letters explaining that their accounts are on hold for the disputed amounts until the issue's resolved and apologizing to them for the way the initial notification was handled," Questar spokesman Chad Jones said.

PSC spokeswoman Julie Orchard said Tuesday that the commission will be staging a meeting at 9:30 a.m. April 17 to outline the issues and determine a procedural schedule for its handling of the matter. The hearing will be at the PSC's office at the Heber Wells Building at 160 E. 300 South in Salt Lake City.

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