The days of closed-off streets, with jackhammers thrumming at all hours and construction workers everywhere, of cold nights in sweat pants, hats, and gloves, and of meals over hot plates are finally over for thousands of families in the Merrimack Valley.
Three months after a series of gas explosions and fires ripped through their neighborhoods, nearly every one of the residents of Andover, Lawrence, and North Andover who went so long without heat or hot water now has their gas service restored and has returned home.
At an event Wednesday, Governor Charlie Baker said the massive recovery effort to restore heat and hot water is “substantially completed.”
“The last three months have contained some of your darkest hours; the sadness, the frustration, the disruption of this incident for you has been unparalleled,” the governor said. “But the spirit and the resilience you have shown across the region in the midst of all this has been a bright spot for the rest of us here in Massachusetts.”
Joined by local officials as well as representatives of Columbia Gas, the utility responsible for the Sept. 13 disaster, Baker was reluctant to outright declare “mission accomplished.” Some 200 homes that remain without service have been destroyed, their owners have chosen to restore service themselves, or the properties have what Baker called “extenuating circumstances” that have prolonged the repairs.
But, he said, crews have restored gas to 98 percent of the roughly 8,000 targeted meters that were affected by the disaster, and he said the critical repair and replacement work on the gas infrastructure has been “substantially completed.”
There are, however, thousands of claims for reimbursement from Columbia Gas that are unresolved.
Pablo Vegas, vice president of Columbia’s corporate parent, NiSource, said the company will keep open a claims process to help residents and businesses recover any losses. More than 25,000 claims have been filed, and 9,000 remain outstanding, Vegas said; nearly $70 million in reimbursements has already been paid out.
“It is a milestone we are marking today, thanks to the hard work and dedication of so many people,” Vegas said. “We know there is so much more work to do.”
Another measure of progress is the pending departure of Joe Albanese, a construction executive and former Navy captain whom Baker tapped to lead the restoration effort. He will remain involved in a follow-up effort to replace appliances and make repairs as needed.
The announcement comes amid US and state investigations of the disaster, including a federal criminal investigation into Columbia’s management and adherence to safety rules.
A preliminary review by the National Transportation Safety Board found that an engineer erred in drawing up plans for a construction project to replace underground pipelines, by failing to relocate a critical pressure sensor. When the errant sensor failed to detect pressure, the system was overwhelmed with high-pressure gas, causing more than 120 fires and explosions. One person was killed.
The recovery was a monumental undertaking, amid the onset of cold weather, and an initial deadline of Nov. 19 was extended into December as crews fell behind in restoring service to homes. More than 43 miles of underground pipeline were replaced, and more than 5,000 new service lines and 18,000 pieces of equipment and appliances were installed. About 20,000 damaged appliances were removed.
Over the last three months, approximately 8,000 people — representing 2,200 families — had been staying in alternative housing, such as hotel rooms.
Vegas said Columbia Gas will maintain three customer care centers in each of the affected municipalities, and crews are planning to return in the spring to replace more than 900 heating appliances that were repaired, rather than replaced, in the race to restore heat before winter.
The company will also follow up with repairs to roads, he said, to lawns that were dug up, and to infrastructure — such as damaged chimneys — that could not be repaired before winter, he said.
Of the 200 families still without service, Albanese said, approximately 150 chose to restore service on their own, and most of them could have gas by the weekend. Those homes that remain without power have been winterized, he said.
Albanese thanked the affected residents for their patience with having to live in construction zones, crews going in and out of their homes, and enduring cold weather with no heat.
“This is not mission accomplished; there remains a significant amount of work ahead,” he said. “There’s something about these communities, and this mission, that has captured me and my mission to this work. The Merrimack Valley, the resilience and grit, has been remarkable.”Milton J. Valencia
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