National Grid workers sit idle while out-of-state workers struggle to restore power in the Merrimack Valley
The aptly named Grand Celebration is normally a bustling cruise ship. With 750 staterooms — most of which boast a water view — it qualifies as a pleasure craft extraordinaire.
Normally. Right now, she’s been re-commissioned.
The ship is docked in the Seaport, housing thousands of Columbia Gas employees working to restore service to Merrimack Valley residents. The workers, brought in from across the country, might be doing grunt work, but they’re resting from their labors in splendor.
The notion of guys from Oklahoma repairing the damage in Lawrence and Andover is enough to drive John Buonopane crazy. Buonopane is the president of the United Steelworkers of America Local 12012, which represents the 1,200 National Grid employees who have been sitting idle since being locked out on June 25. They are uniquely positioned to help in this crisis, but their knowledge has mostly gone untapped.
“I know if National Grid ended the lockout and sent us up to help with the restoration, they wouldn’t need as many out-of-state utility workers,” Buonopane told me. “Our service territory surrounds a part of the Merrimack Valley. If there was no lockout, we would have had an impact right away.”
The National Grid workers were locked out when contract negotiations came to a standstill. Buonopane said his members have repeatedly offered to work while negotiating but have been rebuffed. A bill in the State House intended to push National Grid to end the lockout has been scheduled for a hearing next month. But with the Legislature out of formal session until the end of the year, there won’t be substantive action on it anytime soon.
The work to restore power is going about as badly as many had anticipated. On Friday, state and Columbia Gas officials confirmed that a Nov. 19 deadline to complete the work cannot be met. As ever-colder weather looms, residents were urged to seek “alternative housing.” The new date for restoring service to all of the 8,400 homes affected is now Dec. 19. Whether that gets met — or is just another meaningless “target” — is anyone’s guess.
This would seem like a good time to turn to anyone who can help families in need get back into their houses, regardless of a labor action. But a crew of people whose expertise might substantially cut down on the misery and chaos here remains untapped. It’s infuriating.
As for the cruise ship, I was curious what it might cost to rent it in an emergency. Turns out it has been used for this kind of work before. The federal government rented it to house FEMA workers after the hurricane in Puerto Rico last year — at a cost of $286,111 a day. While I could not confirm that Columbia Gas is paying the same rate, the tab is clearly going to be astronomical. Will ratepayers end up on the hook for this?
Columbia Gas spokesman Scott Ferson insisted that they will not. “It’s covered by insurance,” Ferson said. He added that a requested rate increase the company had sought has been withdrawn. That would be a tough sell right now.
Ferson said the company is working tirelessly to restore everyone’s service as winter approaches. But the fact is that Columbia Gas created this absolute disaster and continues to struggle to repair the damage. The idea that thousands of residents have no idea when they will be able to heat their home or shower or cook a meal is totally unacceptable, no matter how hard people say they are trying to make it right.
National Grid and its workers are talking, and Buonopane seemed guardedly optimistic that the sides are making headway. The workers are still locked out, though.
So here’s an idea. National Grid’s workers could get the heat going in Lawrence for a fraction of what Columbia Gas is spending now. They’re available, and the cold weather is coming. There’s no time to waste.