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Mass. lawmakers rip Columbia Gas for ‘woefully inadequate response’ to Merrimack Valley fires, explosions

Dozens of fires and explosions broke out in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover Thursday afternoon.
Dozens of fires and explosions broke out in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover Thursday afternoon.

The state’s two US senators and the congressmen representing the Merrimack Valley communities rocked by gas fires and explosions Thursday have sent a letter to Columbia Gas criticizing its “woefully inadequate response” to the disaster that forced thousands of residents from their homes.

US Senators Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Representatives Niki Tsongas of Lowell and Seth Moulton of Salem addressed the sharply worded letter Friday to Steve Bryant, president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts.

The Democratic lawmakers said they were “troubled by the failure of you and your leadership team to effectively communicate with customers, impacted communities local and state officials, as well as respond to inquiries from our offices over the past twenty-four hours.”

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The representatives questioned Columbia Gas on a number of issues, including the utility’s response time, staffing levels, and expertise. They also implored the company to “provide much-needed clarity as to how this incident happened and how Columbia Gas will prevent a similar event from occurring in the future.”

Thursday’s gas-fueled fires and explosions in Andover, Lawrence, and North Andover killed one, injured dozens, and displaced thousands. Moulton represents North Andover and parts of Andover, while Tsongas represents Lawrence and parts of Andover.

“Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” read the letter. “The residents of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover want answers, and they deserve them.”

Columbia Gas did not immediately respond to a message regarding Friday’s letter.

The letter notes that the utility had notified customers that it would be “upgrading natural gas lines” in the state before Thursday’s fires and explosions, and questions if Columbia workers were properly trained, and if they followed “all procedures necessary to safely complete and test the upgrade.”

They also asked if the utility plans to compensate those whose homes were damaged, and if it plans to provide restitution “or other support” to the families of those killed or hurt. Additionally, the lawmakers asked how Columbia planned to compensate communities and state agencies for the fires and explosions.

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The letter was released by Moulton’s office Friday evening, just hours after Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency for the three communities. Citing his dissatisfaction with Columbia’s efforts, Baker put Eversource, a rival utility, in charge of restoring gas service to the area.

During a press conference Friday afternoon, Bryant, the president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, defended his company’s performance on Friday, pledged to continue a strong recovery effort, and promised to cooperate in an investigation.

“We are sorry,” he said, adding that the company was “deeply concerned about the inconvenience. This is the sort of thing a gas distribution company hopes never happens.”


Previous Globe coverage was used in this report. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.