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Legislators signal support for gas oversight following Merrimack Valley disaster

Members of the public listened during a hearing Tuesday at the State House during which executives from natural gas utility companies spoke.
Members of the public listened during a hearing Tuesday at the State House during which executives from natural gas utility companies spoke.(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

A state legislative committee Tuesday signaled backing of a new public safety requirement for the gas industry following the Sept. 13 Merrimack Valley disaster.

Lawmakers indicated support for a proposal that Governor Charlie Baker filed to require gas companies have a professional engineer, who has higher training and certification than regular engineers, review and approve construction projects that pose a public safety risk.

The proposal was initially suggested by the National Transportation Safety Board, which has determined that planners for Columbia Gas of Massachusetts failed to notice a key safety device was missing from a construction project that triggered the explosions and fires.

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The Legislature’s Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy held a lengthy hearing Tuesday on the safety policies of the state’s gas utilities, and the government’s ability to police its own standards and safety regulations. Senator Michael J. Barrett, a cochairman, accused the gas industry of being insulated, unwilling to share information, and resistent to criticism.

“I am so tired of hearing of this much vaunted ‘culture of safety in the gas industry’,” a frustrated Barrett told a state regulator at one point, adding, “There’s no indication here . . . that behavior is going to change, and that is what’s really worrisome.”

In the Columbia Gas incident, an NTSB preliminary review found that a lower-level engineer failed to relocate a pressure sensor in construction plans for underground pipe replacement. When the errant sensor failed to detect gas pressure, the system pumped in additional amounts that overwhelmed the regional network, causing more than 120 fires and explosions across Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover. One person was killed.

The federal agency determined that a professional engineer would have had the qualities to detect errors in a construction plan that had been approved by the lower-level engineer.

When pressed by state Senator Bruce E. Tarr Tuesday, the utility executives who appeared before the committee said they would not oppose the mandate. Barrett’s committee did not vote on the proposal Monday.

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“Columbia Gas has reviewed the recommendations that were made in the NTSB preliminary report and intend to adopt those,” said Steve Bryant, the company’s president, adding later, “We do hope the bill moves forward.”

Barrett questioned why such a protocol wasn’t in place to begin with, and he accused Columbia and other utilities of skirting industry standards so that they can place profits ahead of public safety. Barrett pointed out that the NTSB found that Columbia discontinued a process of having its own inspectors at construction sites whenever work related to gas pressure is involved. Bryant said he could not comment on the allegation, citing the ongoing NTSB investigation.

Other utility executives said they have their own policies and procedures in place based on their own systems, some of which had been recommended by industry standards but not required by state law.

“There are layers of protection that, regardless of oversight, that we have to put in place,” said William J. Ackley, president of the gas business unit for Eversource Energy.

John Buonopane, president of the United Steelworkers Local 12012, said the state Department of Public Utilities has too few gas inspectors.

“You have to mandate staffing levels for the [Department of Public Utilities] . . . you need to have all the manpower to deal with all of these companies, and they don’t have anywhere close to what is needed right now,” he said.

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Matthew Beaton, secretary of the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the number of state inspectors has nothing to do with the Merrimack Valley disaster, saying the preliminary NTSB review found Columbia Gas had failed to live up to its own standards.

But Barrett argued gas companies need more oversight.“It isn’t enough to have you folks police yourselves,” Barrett said. “It’s very important for the people of Massachusetts to make sure there is someone independent to make sure you are following your promises to have trained inspectors and . . . staff. It doesn’t seem we have any ability to keep you honest in that respect.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.