LAWRENCE — The head of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts said Monday that the utility takes full responsibility for the financial and emotional toll the Sept. 13 catastrophe in the Merrimack Valley has taken on thousands of residents and businesses.
In his first extensive interview since explosions and fires rocked Andover, Lawrence, and North Andover, Columbia Gas president Steve Bryant also sought to explain the company’s slow response to what he termed the worst service disruption in his nearly 50 years in the business.
“There is nothing comparable in the gas industry to this event,” Bryant said.
Acknowledging that “the road to rebuilding the community confidence is going to be a very long one,” Bryant promised Columbia Gas will reimburse residents and businesses for their lost property and other costs.
“Part of that restoration will be money,” he said. “People need funds to repair things; people need funds for out-of-pocket expenses. People need funds to repair homes that were damaged or destroyed. Business needs funds for the interruption of their business. All of those things are the responsibility of Columbia Gas. We have a financial responsibility for those impacts.”
Columbia Gas has insurance to cover costs in the event of such a catastrophe, and Bryant noted the utility has also given $10 million to a relief fund for situations insurance may not cover.
But he declined to address another financial issue facing the company: whether it would seek higher rates from customers to fund repairs and upgrades to the gas system.
Any consideration of a rate change, he said, would be “a long way down the road.”
A Westborough resident, the 66-year-old Bryant also addressed the criticism that Columbia Gas responded too slowly and communicated too little in the immediate aftermath.
“In the most important time of this disaster, they were the least informed and the last to act,” Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera had said of Columbia Gas. However, in the days since, Rivera has said that Columbia Gas staffers have been instrumental in the recovery.
“As long as they are going to be a good corporate citizen, we will get to where we need to be,” the mayor said in an interview.
Bryant said he understands the frustration, but said few people inside or outside of Columbia Gas recognized the scale of the disaster and the magnitude of the response needed.
“The dynamics were that people wanted us to do something, and here we were trying to assess what should be done,” Bryant said. “That’s a difficult process.”
More than 80 gas fires and explosions were reported in the three municipalities that day.
One teenager was killed, two dozen people were injured, the power was cut for a time, and government officials ordered an immediate evacuation of thousands of residents, many of them among the state’s poorest.
In hindsight, Bryant said, he would have responded to media outlets and the public sooner than the 24 hours it took to issue a statement. Instead, he had his “head down” trying to figure out how to marshal all the resources needed, including going door-to-door to ensure individual gas lines were disconnected.
“It was an incredible dynamic of people wanting to see hundreds of qualified people on the ground to be able to address the situation,” he said, “but it became apparent to me over the night of the event that this was going to be longer than any of us had originally thought.”
He remembers the moment when he realized Columbia Gas would have to replace all 48 miles of older, leak-prone pipes in the area before it could restore gas service. Columbia typically does that amount of replacement work over the course of an entire year; now the company is promising to finish it by Nov. 19.
“That’s profound,” Bryant said. “I can’t begin to describe to you how immense that undertaking was.”
In the first hours after the explosions, Bryant reached out to the North East Gas Association for help from other utilities, he said. But he acknowledged it was Governor Charlie Baker’s decision to declare a state of emergency and put Eversource Energy in charge that ultimately provided the organization that was needed.
Bryant entered the gas industry 48 years ago as a messenger, just after high school. He worked his way up the ranks, in customer service, marketing, and on regulatory matters.
He was driving home that Thursday evening when the explosions and fires erupted. He packed his bags and headed to Lawrence, weaving through heavy traffic as thousands were evacuating, arriving around 7 p.m. He has been staying at a hotel in Littleton since.
Bryant said he quickly approved the shutdown of service once he was aware of the gravity of the event, though Rivera has argued that it took too long.
Bryant said it is a painstaking process to go to residences and businesses and confirm gas service was disconnected, one that was slowed by the evacuations — in many cases, workers had to force their way into homes.
The endeavor, he said, was “far beyond the resources that were available to Columbia Gas.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the catastrophe, though higher than normal gas pressure in the supply pipes is suspected. Columbia Gas was working in the area at the time, replacing older cast-iron and steel pipes as part of a broader program to eliminate gas leaks.
Citing the federal investigation, Bryant would not comment on the cause. But he said he recognized the responsibility of the company and that it would assume full liability.
At Columbia’s expense, the National Guard is distributing thousands of electric hot plates and space heaters, once homes have been inspected for safety.
Inspectors will also assess appliances in individual homes and, when necessary, replace them before gas is restored.
“We have an obligation to make things right,” Bryant said. “The obligation is to return the community to at least the conditions they were in before this situation took place, and to do this as expeditiously as possible.”
Later Monday, Bryant visited construction sites in South Lawrence where crews were replacing a gas line.
“I’m sorry,” he said as he commiserated with the owner of a bodega who had lost some $7,000 worth of perishable food when power was shut off.
“This is what I do, until it’s done,” Bryant said. “The only way for all of us to get through this is to understand how we’ve impacted the community.”