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Massachusetts Law Targets Gas Leak Danger


A new law in Massachusetts sets a uniform standard for rating the severity of natural gas leaks and sets a timetable for making repairs.  Governor Deval Patrick publicized the new law at a ceremonial bill signing today in Springfield -- a city still scarred from a natural gas explosion two years ago.

The bill establishes natural gas leak classification standards. It requires the gas companies to repair the most dangerous leaks immediately and produce plans for the timely replacement of aging pipelines.  Repairs must be prioritized if the leak is detected in a school zone.

At the ceremonial bill signing in Springfield City Hall, Governor Patrick praised the legislators, activists, and utility company officials for their work in producing the bill.

" It is a bill that speaks to public safety, environmental stewardship, jobs and the underground infrastructure, so it is a really good bill."

Massachusetts has more than 21,000 miles of natural gas pipeline with some estimated to be more than 150 years old.  A study concluded more than a third of the gas delivery infrastructure is prone to leaks.

Democratic State Rep. Laurie Ehrlich of Marblehead, who first introduced gas leak legislation six years ago, said the new law will save lives.

" The gas beneath our feet traveling in pipes that are very old and corroded and prone to leaks  is very flammable. Often times as soon as that gas comes in contact with a spark it can cause an explosion. Tragically, houses have been leveled and people have died. So it is an important issue."

The law will also benefit the environment by reducing the flow of methane gas into the atmosphere. The gas is a contributor to climate change, according to Democratic State Rep. John Keenan of Salem, the House co-chair of the legislature’s energy committee.

" It is very rare to have a unanimous bill at the Statehouse. The environmentalists are with  us, the consumers are with us, utilities are with us. It is a great  day."

The law will add an estimated $1 to $2 to the monthly bill of the average natural gas customer to help utilities pay for the accelerated infrastructure replacement.  Lawmakers and utilities say consumers will save money in the long run by not having to pay for gas that is wasted through leaks.

With infrastructure improvements the utility companies will better be able to meet the growing demand for natural gas, according to Berkshire Gas Co. spokesman Chris Farrell.

" ( Gas companies) can go to the Department of Public Utilities and file expansion plans that will allow us to meet the consumer demand in a way that might be easier for consumers to pay for."

Witnessing the ceremonial bill-signing was emotional for Wayne Sergeant, who escaped with his life when a gas explosion set fire to his house in Gloucester.

" This is an important step to help assure that what happened to me in January,2009 does not hapen to someone else."

A gas explosion in Springfield on November 23, 2012 injured 18 people and destroyed or damaged more than 40 buildings in a three block radius around the blast site.  A worker for Columbia Gas Co. caused the explosion when he punctured a high pressure gas main while investigating a report of a gaseous odor inside a nightclub.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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