Gas restoration in Merrimack Valley ramps up this week
Close to 200 construction crews will hit the streets across Greater Lawrence by the end of this week as the ambitious effort to restore gas service to thousands of residents rapidly intensifies before cold weather arrives, officials involved in the restoration said Tuesday.
Deploying some 3,000 workers will allow Columbia Gas of Massachusetts to replace an extensive network of old, leak-prone cast iron and steel pipes and the service connections to thousands of homes and businesses by a Nov. 19 deadline, said Joseph Albanese, the construction company executive tapped to oversee the restoration effort.
“My expectation is [customers] will see a tidal wave of effort, both inside buildings and on the street, starting now,” said Albanese. “This is a resource driven project. You can’t put 45 miles of pipeline in place in a short amount of time without an immense amount of resources.”
Officials cautioned the work will take a toll on traffic in the area, what they called a short-term but necessary burden while they scramble to get service restored.
While Albanese expects officials will have to tie up “loose ends” before gas is restored, he said some of the construction areas could be completed by the first week of November; 70 percent of the system should be restored by the end of October.
“Today, our race is really against the weather to get that done,” he said, adding that, “we feel very confident we can make the Nov. 19 deadline.”
By Friday, 195 construction crews should be working on sites in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, compared to just 20 in the immediate days after the Sept. 13 explosions and fires that ripped through the three towns.
Albanese and his team released a detailed schedule of the order of work in the three towns, dividing the pipe replacement into eight construction zones involving 63 separate projects.
The volume of work facing the restoration team is daunting: 45 miles of gas mains and 6,100 service lines will have to be replaced, and more than 8,400 gas meters checked, before gas can be restored. By contrast, Columbia Gas typically replaces roughly 50 miles of pipeline over an entire year.
In the meantime, more than 70 separate teams of plumbers and electricians have been inspecting appliances inside homes and businesses, assessing whether they can safely be used once gas is restored.
Columbia Gas and Albanese have set a three-stage verification before gas flows back into those properties: First, it must be certified as “house ready,” meaning the appliances are safe to use; then the gas feeds to those properties must be cleared as “gas ready,” meaning the lines have been properly restored; lastly, an inspector will conduct one final assessment to declare whether the building or unit is “relight ready.”
Pablo Vegas, executive vice president of NiSource, Columbia Gas’ parent company, said teams have so far completed more than 1,800 assessments, roughly a third of what’s needed. Following the assessments, officials will then work to install new appliances, as required, to make sure that units are house ready.
Albanese acknowledged that the work on the streets and inside properties are on different tracks. That could mean that a home on one street can be safely reconnected, but that a neighboring house with unsafe appliances cannot. He said the goal is to have the assessments and appliance restorations keep up with replacement of the gas lines. Already, 5 miles of pipelines and more than 200 service lines have been restored.
“We need to get ahead of that with houses that are ready,” he said.
Vegas said that officials are coordinating with Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency officials to identify homes and neighborhoods that could be more vulnerable to colder weather, to see if there is additional assistance available to them, or if there is a way to speed up the connection process.
Once construction is fully underway, Vegas said, Columbia will establish a website with real-time information letting residents know which streets will become gas ready, and when.
“We expect people will have heat, and hot water, and be living in their homes,” Albanese said.