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State orders halt to all Columbia Gas work

Columbia Gas workers on South Broadway in Lawrence last month.
Columbia Gas workers on South Broadway in Lawrence last month.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/File

State regulators have ordered Columbia Gas to halt all non-emergency work on its gas systems in Massachusetts, amid new “troubling issues” that have been raised about construction work that was done following the September 2018 gas disasters in the Merrimack Valley.

In a letter dated Thursday, the Department of Public Utilities ordered the utility to seek state approval for all future work on its territories in the Lawrence, Springfield, and Brockton areas. The department signaled it will approve minor work such as connecting new customers to gas lines and to convert heating supply units for existing customers, but those plans must be laid out with the state and individual communities first.

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The department said the order will remain in place until further notice.

Joe Hamrock, chief executive of NiSource, Columbia’s corporate parent, said in a statement Thursday evening that the company agrees with the decision and will cease non-emergency operations immediately “to ensure our customers can feel safe in their homes and businesses.

“We recognize many have lost their sense of security and we take responsibility for that,” Hamrock said. “While we have taken significant safety steps over the past year, we fully understand that restoring and maintaining the trust and confidence of all our customers and officials will be a continuing process.”

The order came a week after a gas leak in Lawrence forced hundreds of residents out of their homes in an overnight panic. They were allowed to return by the next day.

Authorities later determined that the leak was caused by municipal contractors who mistakenly closed a gas valve that had been mislabeled as a water valve during the response last year to the gas disaster.

Just days ago, three homes in Lawrence were evacuated when a contractor struck a gas line. Though that event was unrelated to Columbia’s work, it inflamed the anxiety among residents following last year’s gas disaster, which involved more than 130 fires and explosions across Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. One person was killed, and two dozen others were injured. The event forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.

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And last month, as Greater Lawrence was marking the first anniversary of the disaster, the company notified the state Department of Public Utilities that it had discovered another error two months earlier: two abandoned service lines that it did not properly cap or identify following last year’s disaster.

Columbia is now reinspecting 700 of 4,900 service lines that the company abandoned or replaced during last year’s work.

In its letter Thursday, the department ordered Columbia Gas to continue the service line work, while it halts all other non-emergency work. The department said the recent incidents constitute potential violations of state and federal regulations, and that the company could face severe fines. The state ordered Columbia to commission an independent audit at its own expense of all the work that was completed in response to the gas disasters, as well as an assessment of whether the work was in compliance with state and federal regulations.

“The department’s concerns are significant, and have led to the opening of multiple new investigations into Columbia Gas,” the department said Thursday.

The department is slated to begin its own investigation into the September 2018 disasters in the coming weeks, which could lead to lofty fines. The investigation was postponed pending a review by the National Transportation Safety Board.

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In a final report released last month, the NTSB placed the blame for the September 2018 disaster directly on Columbia, finding that the utility kept shoddy records that caused an engineer to overlook a key safety feature while drawing out plans for a pipe replacement project.


Reach Milton J. Valencia at milton.valencia@globe.com.