Utility's CEO Promises 'Safer Than Ever' Gas System at Field Hearing

Daniel Rivera, the mayor of Lawrence, faulted Columbia Gas for its actions during and after the disaster. "It was clear that the Columbia Gas engineers and Columbia Gas Massachusetts top leadership were afraid and lacked a clear path to deal with the disaster," he said in his prepared statement. "They owned the pipe, owned the gas in the pipe, they owned the customer relationships, yet they failed to own this disaster."

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, convened a full committee hearing on Nov. 26 in a school gymnasium in Lawrence, Mass., to discuss the Sept. 13 natural gas pipeline explosions and fires that occurred there and in Andover, Mass., killing one person, injuring more than 20, and damaging more than 130 structures in those cities. The gym was packed.

The witnesses included NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt, Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, and Joe Hamrock, CEO of NiSource, which operates seven natural gas and electric utilities, including Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, the owner of the pipeline involved in the explosions. Sumwalt's prepared statement explained that a Columbia Gas crew was replacing a cast-iron distribution main in South Lawrence, Mass., with a plastic distribution main on Sept. 13. The main that was being replaced had regulator-sensing lines to detect pressure in the distribution system; when that main was disconnected, the section containing the regulator-sensing lines began losing pressure. The regulators responded by opening further and then opened completely when they no longer sensed system pressure, and as a result the full flow of high-pressure gas was released into the distribution system supplying the neighborhood, he explained.

Most of the damage in the incident resulted from structure fires ignited by gas-fueled appliances, although several structures were destroyed by natural gas explosions, he said.

Markey said Columbia Gas's deficiencies "are more than a litany of shortcomings, they are a roadmap to disaster. And that's exactly what we saw on September 13th." He also faulted federal oversight, saying the explosion was a "preventable" accident that should never have occurred.

In his prepared statement, Hamrock, the parent company's CEO, apologized for the disaster and said the entire company "is dedicated to addressing and remediating the damage that has occurred and to helping the community heal." He said the company suspended construction work on low-pressure systems after Sept. 13, only performing work necessary for compliance and safety, and he said the company is taking steps to execute the NTSB's safety recommendations. Those recommendations to NiSource were:

  • Revise the engineering and constructability review process to include all internal departments and require plans to be sealed by a professional engineer prior to construction
  • Ensure that all natural gas systems records are complete and readily available
  • Incorporate risk assessments into project development
  • While any modifications are made to gas mains, actively monitor pressures and require personnel to be in place to immediately respond to any abnormal changes in the pipeline system

"The Merrimack Valley has a long road to recovery ahead," Hamrock acknowledged. "Our entire company is committed to working with you to advance that recovery. We know this work is, and will be, the most important duty of our professional careers. We are going to get you back in your homes and businesses. We are going to make the Merrimack Valley gas system safer than ever."

Rivera, the mayor of Lawrence, faulted Columbia Gas for its actions during and after the disaster. "It was clear that the Columbia Gas engineers and Columbia Gas Massachusetts top leadership were afraid and lacked a clear path to deal with the disaster," Rivera said in his prepared statement. "They owned the pipe, owned the gas in the pipe, they owned the customer relationships, yet they failed to own this disaster."

He said the residents' recovery is far from completed, with some people in the communities still without heat or hot water in their homes. Rivera said Columbia Gas did fix the pipe in the street "ahead of schedule, and without further disaster. For this we are thankful," he added. "However, the rest of the work has been miserable. . . . The plight of people and their suffering has been prolonged because of a broken claims process, a broken repair process, and a total lack of understanding of how to communicate with customers."

He called for the company to no longer be allowed to operate a natural gas utility. "Break it apart, revoke their license, make them sell their business to someone else -- it doesn't matter how, but, like Leonel Rondon's life was taken, and multiple homes no longer exist, and our lives and livelihood has forever been altered, Columbia Gas as a company should no longer exist," Rivera said. "That is what justice for everyone affected would look like."

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