A gas explosion in a Dorchester home last week has renewed focus on the state’s aging natural gas pipelines, which not only pose threats to public safety, but also cost customers millions of dollars because they still are charged for fuel lost to leaks.
Legislation is moving through both Congress and the state Legislature to speed repair and replacement of gas pipelines. Some in Massachusetts are more than 150 years old.
Massachusetts utilities respond to tens of thousands of calls about potential gas leaks each year, and reported more than 25,000 leaks to utility regulators at the end of September. Last week’s explosion, which followed a call from someone who smelled gas, critically injured two elderly people and hurt nine others on Hansborough Street.
US Senator Edward J. Markey, who called the explosion “just the latest scary reminder” of the threat of gas leaks, has proposed two bills that could help address the problem.
The first bill requires utilities speed up the repair or replacement of the leakiest pipes and asks state regulators to consider adopting policies that prioritize repairs based on the severity of a leak. The bill would also speed the process under which utilities can recover the cost of that work from the rates customers pay.
Markey’s second bill would establish a revolving loan fund to help finance pipeline repairs in states. States would need to match 20 percent of the federal funds they received under the program.
US consumers have paid some $20 billion during the last decade for natural gas they never received because of leaks, according to a study released by Markey’s office last year. In addition, the main component of natural gas is methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that has a greater impact on climate change than carbon dioxide.
“The unseen patchwork of aging natural gas pipelines in our country threatens public safety, takes money out of the pockets of consumers who pay for gas they never receive, and releases emissions that worsen climate change,” Markey said in a statement.
In Massachusetts, the state Senate recently passed legislation that sets standards for classifying the severity leaks, as well as a timeline for repairing them. The bill includes language giving priority to leaks near places of public assembly, such as churches, hospitals, and schools.
The legislation would also require utilities to make repairs when unrelated road construction projects expose a pipeline. That is not mandated now.
A similar bill also has passed the state House of Representatives. Negotiators from each house will hash out the differences to craft a compromise bill.
State Representative Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat who has been working for the past five years to get a leak repair bill passed, said there appears to be “quite a bit” of support for the legislation, and accidents like last week’s explosion put a spotlight on the problem.
“I don’t want to presuppose what happened in Dorchester,” Ehrlich said, “but it is a good reminder that what is traveling beneath our feet is explosive and time is of the essence in taking care of this issue.”
Investigators are still trying to determine the source of the gas responsible for the explosion April 16, Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald said Friday.
National Grid utility workers were investigating a report of a gas leak when the explosion ripped through the home on Hansborough Street. The utility said it does not believe its pipes were the problem.
“We have not found any issues with our infrastructure, and it appears to have been operating normally,” the company said in a statement.