In the wake of gas explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley, the safety of natural gas infrastructure across Massachusetts is being questioned. Activists are challenging plans to expand gas pipelines.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities has announced it will hire an outside evaluator to study the physical integrity and safety of the natural gas distribution system within the state and the operation and maintenance policies of gas companies doing business in the Commonwealth.
Republican Governor Charlie Baker endorsed the DPU’s announcement, but cautioned that it is a big project and will take several months to finish.
"In an abundance of caution, the DPU did put out an order last week to bring in a third party expert to do a top-to-bottom review of both the physical infrastructure and the approaches to maintenence and modernization of the pipeline system in Massachusetts, and I think that report will be really important," said Baker.
In the aftermath of the explosions and fires in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover last month, there have been questions about whether the DPU is up to the task of policing the utilities.
"In 2017 there were 1,000 inspections, which was a massive increase over the number of inspections in '16, '15. '14, and '13," said Baker. " It is a big part of the DPU's charge to make sure people are doing the work associated with upgrading and maintaining that infrastructure."
A preliminary investigation points to over-pressurized gas lines as the cause of the disaster that killed one person, injured two dozen people, and set off fires that destroyed or damaged 60 houses. It is unknown if the pressure problem was the result of an equipment problem or human error.
Citing ongoing federal and state investigations, Columbia Gas Company has remained silent about what happened.
Democratic State Rep. Bud Williams of Springfield has called for public hearings in western Massachusetts, where Columbia Gas serves about 100,000 homes and businesses.
" You know, we've been in the dark on this basically," said Williams. "I've gotten enough phone calls to realize this is on the minds of our citizens."
Williams said the legislature needs to look at what happened with state monitoring and make changes if warranted.
"The state needs to really look at this in terms of maybe requiring more state inspectors and changes in regulatory oversight," he said.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, the day after the Merrimack Valley disaster, instructed the city’s fire commissioner and DPW director to set up a meeting with Columbia Gas representatives to discuss the company’s maintenance efforts in the city.
" The bottom line: to make sure we are kept safe here in Springfield," said Sarno.
Columbia Gas accepted responsibility for an explosion in downtown Springfield in 2012 that it said was caused when a worker punctured a gas line because its location was not marked properly.
" ( Columbia Gas) was very responsive in dealing with residents, businesses, and structures to make them whole," Sarno said.
The explosions and fires north of Boston have energized opposition to a Columbia Gas pipeline project in western Massachusetts.
The company wants to build a six-mile pipeline from Agawam to Holyoke to help satisfy what it projects will be a 25 percent increase in demand for gas in a few years.
Activists in recent days have marched and rallied against the project. Marty Nathan of Climate Action Now Western Massachusetts said the disaster is one more reason why the pipeline expansion is a bad idea.
She said natural gas is toxic, causes climate change, and the pipeline infrastructure is expensive for ratepayers.
" We were not thinking so much about the fact that is is also dangerous." said Nathan. "Now, we are reminded that it is."
The Northampton City Council unanimously passed a resolution Thursday night to oppose the pipeline project.
Columbia Gas has hired 3,000 temporary workers to replace 49 miles of pipe so that gas service can be restored to about 9,000 homes and businesses in the Merrimack Valley.
A target date of Nov. 19th has been set to complete the work.