The Baker administration will hire an independent evaluator to conduct a sweeping safety study of the natural gas distribution networks in Massachusetts, a process that will be financed by the utilities under an emergency order linked to the fatal Merrimack Valley gas explosions.
The push to hire the evaluator was announced Wednesday by the state Department of Public Utilities, the state agency in charge of overseeing natural gas distribution systems in Massachusetts.
“The independent evaluator’s review will further the Department’s [safety] efforts by performing an additional examination of the physical condition and safety of the distribution system, as well as the operational and maintenance functions of natural gas companies,” Department of Public Utilities Chairwoman Angela O’Connor said in a statement.
The examination will parallel, but not interfere with, the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board into the causes of the Sept. 13 explosions and fires in Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence that cost 18-year-old Leonel Rondon his life and damaged dozens of homes.
The investigation also comes amid a prolonged standoff between National Grid and two of its unions: The utility locked out about 1,250 gas workers in June due to a contractual dispute. Union representatives met with the DPU on Wednesday to discuss the numerous safety complaints they’ve filed since the lockout began.
James Grasso, a communications consultant who works with the natural gas industry, said he expects the utilities will welcome the extra scrutiny because they want to ensure they have safe systems.
“It’s a very smart and needed move by the DPU and the governor’s office,” Grasso said. “I think everyone is going to be on board with this.”
The catastrophe has raised questions about the oversight of the gas industry at a time when utilities are conducting massive upgrades to their systems to eliminate thousands of leaks around the state. Columbia Gas is in the midst of a 20-year program to replace hundreds of miles of older, leak-prone cast iron and steel pipes, and the company had crews working on that project in the Merrimack Valley at the time of the explosions.
Moreover, the DPU itself has been hampered by a number of retirements among the pipeline engineers who conduct safety inspections of gas companies; eight DPU inspectors have retired over the past three years, including four in 2018 alone. Just weeks before the Merrimack Valley incident, a federal audit noted the DPU was down to two engineers doing field inspections.
The DPU has since added a supervisor to its field team and said it is in the process of either hiring or certifying others to conduct inspections.
Columbia Gas, National Grid, and Eversource each issued statements in which they welcomed the state review.
The new gas review comes as thousands of residents and businesses in the affected neighborhoods face weeks without gas for heat or hot water while Columbia Gas pushes ahead with an ambitious plan: replacing 48 miles of pipeline by Nov. 19, a volume of work the utility typically takes a year to complete.
Also Wednesday, the Massachusetts Division of Insurance issued warnings to insurance companies, urging them to quickly process any claims related to the incident, and not to change rates or cancel policies on customers solely because of their status as victims of the disaster.
“The Division encourages insurers to provide prompt and immediate relief to those policyholders impacted by the disaster, including the temporary suspension of premium payments and suspension of vacancy provisions for those temporarily displaced,” the agency said in a statement. “Insurers are also encouraged to work with policyholders with regard to the collection of premiums, including the granting of requests for reasonable payment plans.”
Columbia Gas has promised businesses and residents it would reimburse them for losses and other costs related to the incident. But several businesses in the area reported different responses from their insurance companies.
Leo Altovino, who owns Amici’s Pizzeria in North Andover, said his insurer, Merchants Association, told him he would be covered for lost food and business, and he expects to try to recover any other losses directly from Columbia Gas.
“I needed immediate relief because I have bills to pay, a mortgage to pay,” Altovino said. “My insurance, from what I understand, is there for that reason.”
But John Farrington, who owns Carleen’s Coffee Shoppe in Lawrence, said his insurer, Traveler’s, initially told him it would not cover his losses and then said it would. But now, he’s unsure whether to go ahead and make a claim, or wait until he can get reimbursed by Columbia Gas.
“My best move has been to sit on my hands and wait for things to happen,” Farrington said.
Meanwhile, National Guard and Columbia Gas personnel have delivered thousands of hot plates and electric space heaters to affected residents. The utility is now conducting individual reviews of residences and businesses, to ensure their electrical systems can handle the space heaters, and their appliances will work once gas service is restored.
The state’s independent evaluator will get a broad mandate that includes inspecting utility records, assessing whether they have enough manpower on hand for an emergency, and a physical examination of the gas pipelines that snake across Massachusetts.
The DPU and the gas utilities are responsible for overseeing some 21,500 miles of distribution pipelines in the state. The state agency also has authority over about 20 miles of the 1,000-mile interstate transmission system in the state; the rest of that system is overseen by federal regulators and the pipeline owners.
NTSB officials have indicated there was higher-than-normal gas pressure in the underground pipes.
That overwhelmed the system, leading to some 80 fires and explosions in the three communities.
“This review will help improve accountability for utilities and add another layer of oversight for all natural gas infrastructure,” Baker said in a statement.
Baker is running for reelection this fall against Democrat Jay Gonzalez, who, like Baker, is a former health insurance executive. Gonzalez criticized the staffing levels at DPU this week.
Milton Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this story. John R. Ellement can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe. Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.