LAWRENCE (CBS) – There was no warning. Columbia Gas over pressurized pipelines sparked a series of explosions and ignited dozens of fires in the Merrimack Valley that started just after 4pm on September 13, 2018.
A year later, Boston University environmental engineer Nathan Phillips told the I-Team we are not any safer, because the pipeline system is the same system – with the same vulnerabilities it had a year ago.
According to Phillips, aging gas infrastructure across the state makes it prone to leaks. He pointed out that there are thousands of leaks in Boston and across the Commonwealth. Phillips also said every gas leak has the potential to become explosive.
To investigate all of those leaks, the I-Team has learned that the Department of Public Utilities has just 15 inspectors, and only six are certified to conduct independent investigations. The DPU said that is almost double the number of inspectors it had in 2018.
“That’s not enough,” Philips said. “Those numbers compared to the 21,000 pipelines; that’s very small staffing number to be in charge of all that infrastructure.”
The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities told the I-Team that the nine inspectors currently not certified to conduct independent investigations will be certified in the near future, and they are hiring others.
The state also passed a new law that requires certified professional engineers approve all plans for gas work.
As for some of the safety improvements made by Columbia Gas, the company says it installed new gas lines in the Merrimack Valley and is in the process of beginning compliance checks of the abandoned lines, as a precaution.
Mark Kempic, President of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, said every home now has automatic shut off valves for both over and under pressurization, and remote monitoring to detect changes in pressure.
The company also said it now has GPS mapping of pipelines and is working on better communicating to its customers all of the safety initiatives that have been put in place.
In the end, researchers say no one was prepared for what happened in the Merrimack Valley, and the lessons learned will allow the state, the utilities, and customers to be better prepared if – and when – this happens again.
The National Transportation Safety Board is still working on its final report on the September 2018 incident. The Department of Public Utilities is conducting an independent evaluation of the Commonwealth’s natural gas infrastructure and operations at a cost of $1.48 million. That report is due out at the end of the year.
In a statement DPU tells us:
“As the safety and security of all residents is the top priority of the Baker-Polito Administration, the administration has taken numerous steps to strengthen gas infrastructure safety measures, including filing legislation requiring certified professional engineers to approve natural gas work, hiring an independent evaluator to assess the safety of the natural gas distribution system, and ensuring that all natural gas companies adopt recommended comprehensive pipeline safety management standards. Additionally, the Department of Public Utilities has nearly doubled its staff of Public Utility Engineers for on-site audits and safety procedures, completed operational reviews, and will collaborate on best safety practices across the gas, electric, and transportation divisions to ensure the state’s natural gas distribution system is operated in a safe and reliable manner. ”– Katie Gronendyke, EEA