Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday proposed the first new state law in response to the Sept. 13 Merrimack Valley gas explosions. It would mandate that certified professional engineers be required to sign off on all serious natural gas work, one of the urgent recommendations made by federal regulators investigating the disaster that rocked Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover.
Baker called the requirement “another critical check and balance on the Commonwealth’s gas infrastructure.”
“We look forward to working with our colleagues in the Legislature to pass this legislation without delay in order to ensure continued safety of Massachusetts’ residents and energy infrastructure,” the governor said in a statement.
The proposal would mandate by law that professional engineers, who have higher levels of training and certification, be required to approve any engineering plans and specifications for work that could pose a material risk to public safety. That safety determination would be made by the state Department of Public Utilities, which oversees the gas industry.
In a report earlier this month, the National Transportation and Safety Board found that a Columbia Gas engineer with lesser qualifications and experience overlooked critical steps in a construction project that has been identified as the trigger for the disaster. Among its recommendations, the board suggested the state require more experienced professional engineers to sign off on such construction work to ensure oversights and omissions are caught.
A preliminary investigation determined that a construction crew replacing pipeline in South Lawrence had left a pressure sensor on an abandoned pipeline and failed to place a new one. That caused outside monitors to detect low pressure in the network and to remotely increase gas flow, leading to an overpressurization of the system that set off more than 120 fires and explosions across the Merrimack Valley. One person was killed, and more than 20 others were injured.
In a preliminary report last week, the NTSB singled out an engineer for Columbia Gas who oversaw the construction plans for not identifying the sensor and requiring its relocation.
Like many other states, Massachusetts does not require a professional engineer to sign off on utility construction projects, but the NTSB said a professional engineer could have caught the omissions and prevented the disaster.
“A [professional engineer’s] seal on a plan would illustrate that the plan had been approved by an accredited professional with the requisite skills, knowledge, and experience to provide a comprehensive review,” the NTSB said in a preliminary report.
The Baker administration said the new proposal would ensure that work “is performed consistent with a standard of care and in accordance with a strict code of ethics.”
Columbia Gas officials have said that they have been in contact with the NTSB and have already incorporated some of the agency’s recommendations. But they declined to comment on issues relating to the Sept. 13 incident because of the ongoing investigation.
A spokesman for NiSource, Columbia Gas’s corporate parent, said the company supported the proposal. “Safety is our top priority, which is why we have begun implementing safety measures across the NiSource system, in addition to and including others the NTSB recommended,” the spokesman, Dean Lieberman said.
The DPU had previously imposed a moratorium on all work, except for emergency and compliance work, by Columbia Gas pending the ongoing investigation into the disaster. The DPU has imposed a similar moratorium on National Grid, which has locked out its unionized gas workers over a long-running contract dispute.
Separately, the state has hired an outside consultant, Dynamic Risk Assessment Systems Inc., to conduct an independent examination of the safety of the state’s natural gas system.