Columbia Gas ordered to halt all work except for emergencies, Merrimack Valley
State regulators imposed a moratorium Friday on all non-essential gas work by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, while the utility undertakes a massive recovery effort in the Merrimack Valley following the September explosions and fires.
The moratorium will be in place until at least December 1, the Department of Public Utilities said, one day after the US National Transportation and Safety Board issued a preliminary report on the catastrophe, which killed one, injured two dozen others and has left thousands without heat and hot water for weeks.
Except for the recovery effort, the utility can perform only emergency repairs and compliance work, and must notify each municipality in its service territories daily of any planned work.
The company serves more than 300,000 customers in the Merrimack Valley, the southeastern Massachusetts area around Brockton, and Greater Springfield.
Dean Lieberman, a Columbia Gas of Massachusetts spokesman, said the utility would comply with the DPU order.
“This does not impact the restoration efforts in the Merrimack Valley, or other compliance work across Columbia’s footprint,” Lieberman said. “As always, we remain committed to the safety of our customers, our communities and our employees.”
This is the second moratorium the DPU issued this week to a gas utility. On Monday, the agency ordered National Grid to halt all work across its service territory — with the exception of emergency and compliance work — after workers mistakenly allowed high-pressure gas into the local networks in a section of Woburn. The work was being performed by company supervisors because National Grid is in the midst of a months-long lockout of its unionized employees over new contract terms. The DPU said the moratorium will remain in place while the agency reviews National Grid’s safety practices.
Also, late Friday, Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo announced the state Legislature would hold an oversight hearing into the Merrimack Valley disaster and additional pipeline safety issues. The review will be held after Columbia Gas has completed its recovery work in Merrimack Valley; the company has set a Nov. 19 deadline for returning heat and hot water to customers.
In its report on Columbia Gas on Thursday, the NTSB said the utility’s failure to disconnect or relocate a live sensor on an abandoned pipe led to a gush of high-pressure gas overwhelming its local network, triggering dozens of fires and explosions in Andover, Lawrence, and North Andover.
Analysts said the NTSB report still left many unanswered questions. A more complete finding from the agency is not expected for a year.
US Senator Ed Markey Friday said the NTSB report showed Columbia Gas was “woefully unprepared,” and has promised a congressional hearing into the company’s response to the calamity.
“We need to turn over every stone and shine a light on the workings of this company and the entire industry, so that people can both trust that their gas system is safe and verify that nothing like this will ever happen again,” Markey said in a posting on Facebook.
Columbia Gas and its parent company, NiSource Inc., said it could not comment on the NTSB report because of the ongoing investigation.
But Lieberman said the company is “committed to helping the NTSB do its job and respect its investigation” and noted Columbia Gas immediately had suspended similar work after the Lawrence incident, and enhanced its safety procedures for work on low-pressure systems.
“Our actions in the incident’s aftermath align with our commitment to the safety of our customers, our communities and our employees,” Lieberman said in a statement.
The company is racing against the onset of cold weather to replace some 45 miles of gas mains and thousands of service lines to properties in the three towns still without heat or hot water. So far, the utility said it has replaced more than half of the gas mains in the area, and also has promised to replace damaged appliances and meters for affected property owners.
On Friday, a cruise ship arrived in Boston to help relieve the housing crunch created by the influx of hundreds of construction workers competing with displaced families for temporary lodgings.
Columbia Gas will use the 1,900-passenger cruise ship Grand Celebration to house hundreds of construction workers, freeing up hotel rooms and other temporary accommodations in the Merrimack Valley for displaced families.