In November 2010, a construction crew replacing a water main pipe in Hyde Park struck a gas line with a backhoe, causing gas to quickly seep into a nearby single family home. Workers knocked on the door, but nobody was home.
Within minutes, a massive explosion flattened the house, shattered windows blocks away, and damaged eight other homes.
Eight years later, Bob Houser and his partner are still battling the contractor in court over the loss of their house. The gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley that killed one man, damaged dozens of properties, and left thousands without heat or hot water brought their loss home again.
“Everything was gone,” said 55-year-old Houser. “There’s no book on how you recover from a home explosion, when you lose everything you own.”
While the disaster in Lawrence was cataclysmic, the cause was extremely rare: buildup of gas pressure in the local pipe network. Much more common is what happened in Hyde Park: Construction crews puncture gas lines with alarming frequency — more than two a day, on average, in Massachusetts, according to data provided by the Department of Public Utilities.
The culprit is usually some form of human error: sloppy or careless digging by excavators, inaccurate street markings or mapping of underground pipes by utilities, or construction companies ignoring a state law that requires anyone digging to call first to identify what’s hidden underground.
Most incidents don’t cause injuries and often result in only a temporary shutdown of service and evacuation of nearby homes and businesses.
“They can get away with this 100 times, but on the 101st a city block disappears,” said Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety specialist and adviser to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “You don’t fear this infrastructure, but it should command much respect.”
As in other states, anyone excavating on public or private property — even a homeowner installing a fence — is required to first pre-mark the area, call 811, and wait — at least 72 hours, in Massachusetts — before digging. During that time, the call center notifies utility companies, which are required to mark their underground systems. The Massachusetts program, Dig Safe, fields an enormous number of requests: 363,876 in 2017, the bulk from contractors.
While only a small percentage of excavations in Massachusetts are done incorrectly, when something goes wrong it almost always involves a punctured gas line. Last year, there were 991 reported Dig Safe violations in the state, 859 involved damage to gas lines, according to the Department of Public Utilities. Excavators were found at fault in about 75 percent of those incidents last year, while utilities accounted for about 24 percent, according to the agency.
Bob Finelli, president of the Dig Safe clearinghouse that fields 811 calls for most of New England, said the notification system is “an effective tool for contractors,” but depends on them calling in first, and then following utility markings.
The number of Dig Safe violations involving punctured gas lines has moved up and down in recent years: in 2016, 995 gas lines in Massachusetts were struck, and 752 the year before.
Across the country, mistakes by excavators are one of the leading causes of damage reported to local gas pipelines: 52 percent in 2017, compared to 24 percent for excavators failing to call in advance and 17 percent due to location issues, such as underground utilities being mismarked or not marked at all, according to the Common Ground Alliance, a trade association that promotes safety in underground work.
Kuprewicz said regulators need to crack down on repeat violators. Yet for more than a year through 2016, the DPU had just a single employee investigating hundreds of possible Dig Safe violations. In July 2017, the manager of the DPU’s damage prevention program said in an affidavit that her office “experienced a significant backlog in processing dig safe violation reports” that year and the year before, partly because of the departure of a staff attorney.
In response to a contractor’s complaint that regulators took nearly three years to issue a decision on a 2014 violation, Vanessa Do Arcovio wrote in an affidavit that her DPU office received approximately 1,000 reports of violation a year, with 200 to 300 in some months. At the time Do Arcovio was the only state employee responsible for reviewing, investigating, and pursuing every one of them.
The attorney for that contractor, P. Gioioso & Sons, complained it took the state as long as 14 months to notify his client about possible Dig Safe violations in 2014 and 2015, and another 18 months to issue findings. And after all that, the DPU rejected Gioioso’s request for an appeal because it missed a 10-day filing deadline by several days, the attorney, Dragan Cetkovic, said.
“Obviously the issue of public safety is not one of their main concerns,” Cetkovic said. “If Gioioso did something to contribute to a failure, we want to know right away. We want to fix the problem.”
Even so, when the state does act — fines of $1,000 for first offense, $5,000 to $10,000 for subsequent violations — contractors often fail to pay the penalties.
On Sept. 13, the same day the gas networks in the Merrimack Valley erupted into dozens of fires and explosions, the DPU issued an order citing 77 companies for ignoring notices of Dig Safe violations or judgments, some that went back several years.
They were given 20 days to appeal or pay up. Most of the companies — 55 — did not respond by the deadline.
DPU spokeswoman Katie Gronendyke said the agency “takes seriously its responsibility to investigate alleged violations of the Dig Safe Law, has increased the number of enforcement actions taken in recent years, and will continue to investigate all reported violations and penalize offenders.”
The DPU beefed up its pipeline safety office, adding an attorney and two contract workers over the last two years. With four employees assigned full-time to the Dig Safe program officials said there is no longer a backlog of cases. Fines collected nearly doubled in 2017, over the prior year, to $1.7 million.
One of the companies cited in the Sept. 13 order is K. DaPonte Construction Corp. of Fall River, for eight violations over three years. Owner Kevin DaPonte said his company works as a subcontractor to other firms, installing street curbing. Most of his $40,000 in fines, DaPonte said, were for failing to obtain a valid Dig Safe ticket prior to excavating. He blamed the contractors who hired him for claiming they had included his work on their Dig Safe tickets, when they hadn’t.
“This is all in our past,” said DaPonte, adding that he has been “very diligent,” hasn’t had any violations this year, and now calls Dig Safe before doing work, unless a contractor provides proof his company is listed on its Dig Safe ticket.
Two of DaPonte’s violations were for causing damage while digging in Cambridge in 2015 and in Watertown last year. In one, DaPonte said a worker was negligent because he saw markings, kept digging, and struck a gas line with a backhoe. He said he fired him.
State law requires excavators to use nonmechanical means when digging within 18 inches of a marked underground facility. But DaPonte said utility companies sometimes don’t accurately mark their equipment, or the markings are inadvertently paved over by other workers. And sometimes, he finds newer plastic gas lines installed close to the surface.
“These companies are putting them three inches and four inches deep,” DaPonte said. “They don’t care.”
The required depth of underground gas lines varies, but generally is a minimum of 12 inches on private property, and 18 inches in the street.
“It’s easy with heavy equipment to hit something,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, adding that utility company markings don’t indicate how deep their systems are buried.
In July, hundreds of people were evacuated in the Longwood Medical Area, including part of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, after a construction crew ruptured a gas main. In August, one month before the big gas explosions, workers from DeFelice Corp. upgrading the city of Lawrence’s water system hit a Columbia Gas line, forcing the evacuation of about 100 homes.
DeFelice workers unearthed a gas line while excavating by hand and did not realize it was an inactive pipe, according to the Eagle Tribune newspaper. DeFelice workers then resumed digging with a backhoe and struck an active line nearby, the report said.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera told the newspaper there was “plenty of fault to go around,” for the Aug. 16 incident, including incomplete maps of the underground utility lines, created by the Andover-based Woodard & Curran.
Jennifer Andrews, a spokeswoman for Woodard & Curran, said the company relies on information provided by utility companies and other sources when creating maps, and has “an excellent safety record” working for the city of Lawrence.
Columbia Gas filed a Dig Safe violation report alleging it had properly marked the active gas line and accused DeFelice of failing to use reasonable caution.
“We are diligent in our markings and mapping of our main lines and always work closely with the relevant authorities and contractors to prioritize safety,” Columbia Gas spokesman Dean Lieberman said. Since then, he said a Columbia Gas employee oversees any work by DeFelice crews, “to minimize the chances of a line being hit in the future.”
A lawyer for DeFelice said the company would not comment on the Lawrence incident. DeFelice was also the contractor that struck the gas line in Hyde Park in 2010, triggering the explosion that reduced the recently renovated home of Bob Houser and Michael Burns to rubble.
Both men were not home at the time. Houser said their ordeal should be instructive for Merrimack Valley victims and advised them to be assertive with insurance companies, and get any offers or promises of help in writing.
He and Burns were forced to document everything they lost and to put a dollar value on family heirlooms and sentimental treasures that were obliterated.
In 2013, the DPU found DeFelice dug beyond the area in its Dig Safe notice, “a serious offense that resulted in the complete destruction of one family’s home, significant damage to neighboring families’ homes, and could have resulted in personal injury.” It fined the company the maximum, $31,000. A state appeals court upheld the findings.
Burns and Houser sued NStar and DeFelice Corp. for negligence. The gas company settled, but a jury ruled in DeFelice’s favor during a 2016 trial.
DeFelice said it alerted Dig Safe that it planned to excavate near the Danny Road home of Burns and Houser, and accused NStar of failing to mark the gas line.
In a statement, George DeFelice said evidence at the trial showed his company had “requested a re-mark of all the underground gas lines in the area, including all intersections, and the gas utility failed to do it. The mark-out man from the gas utility came out to the site, but left without re-marking anything and did not tell anyone from DeFelice that he hadn’t marked anything.”
But in April a state appeals court ordered a new trial, ruling the trial judge failed to clearly explain to the jury that DeFelice’s Dig Safe violation was evidence of negligence.
Michael Durand, a spokesman for Eversource, previously NStar, said: “The facts in this case are simple: when workers from DeFelice Corporation hit our gas line that day, the line wasn’t marked because they never notified Dig Safe they were digging on that road.”