LAWRENCE – Some members of the state’s congressional delegation have proposed a law named after Leonel Rondon, the 18-year-old killed in the September Merrimack Valley natural gas disasters, that officials say could better hold utilities responsible and prevent a similar tragedy.
“We know we can never bring him back, but we can keep him in our memory by fighting for this legislation, to make sure it never happens again,” US Senator Edward Markey told reporters Monday at a news conference at a South Lawrence fire station, in the thick of the area affected by the disaster. He was flanked by US Representative Lori Trahan and Rondon’s family, including his mother and father.
Rondon was killed when a Lawrence home exploded and a chimney fell onto him while he was sitting in a car in the driveway. His sister, Lucianny, said that the family was “honored” that his name would be used in the name of public safety, calling Rondon a “loving” brother and son, and “an important member of our community.”
“Now it’s time for Congress . . . to do whatever is necessary to ensure this kind of disaster never happens again to other families, here in Lawrence, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, or anywhere else in the United States,” she said.
The bill will go before the Senate Commerce Committee, which has a general pipeline safety meeting Wednesday with representatives from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. Those agencies oversee the gas industry and are investigating the September disaster.
More than two dozen people were injured last fall, when, according to authorities, more than 120 fires and explosions occurred across Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, and thousands of people were evacuated. It took months to restore gas to the tens of thousands of residents who were affected, and many went without heat or hot water into the cold months of November and December.
The system is run by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts.
A preliminary review by the NTSB found that a construction crew replacing underground pipes in South Lawrence failed to reconnect a gas pressure sensor to new pipeline. The failure, which has been attributed to oversight by a Columbia Gas engineer, caused an over-pressurization of the system, leading to the fires and explosions.
Markey’s bill would make law several safety measures intended to fix weaknesses identified in the preliminary investigation and in a congressional hearing that he and US Senator Elizabeth Warren hosted in Lawrence in November.
For instance, the bill would mandate that professional engineers, who have a higher level of certification, be required to sign off on significant construction projects. An inspector would have to be on site during construction. Utility companies would have to develop response plans for even unlikely events such as the level of over-pressurization that occurred in September, and would have to share those plans with local emergency responders.
And, potential fines for violations would increase, from $200,000 to $20 million for each violation; a maximum limit for fines would be raised, from $2 million to $200 million.
Dean Lieberman, a spokesman for Columbia and its parent company, NiSource, said Monday that the companies have already adopted many of the proposed safety revisions since the September disaster, developing new safety management and enhanced mapping systems, and installing automatic shut-off devices when irregular pressure is detected. He said that the “most profound impact of the September 13 event was the tragic loss of a young life. Our hearts go out to the Rondon family and the entire community.”
“We recognize the importance of rebuilding public confidence when it comes to pipeline safety, and we look forward to continuing to work with Congress, our industry partners, and other stakeholders on this important mission,” he said. , noting that the incident remains under investigation, and that the utility is cooperating with the NTSB.
Bob Mahoney, director of special projects for the Utility Workers Union of America, which represents more than 6,000 workers in Massachusetts for utilities including Eversource, Unitil, National Grid, and Columbia Gas, also questioned the need for the bill, saying most companies already have such measures in place.
Mahoney , who said he did not speak with Markey or the co-sponsors, said the bill is misguided in that it does not address Columbia Gas’ use of utility workers at the construction site. He said trained utility workers could have helped prevent the disaster. “If you want to prevent another tragedy like what happened [in Lawrence], that’s the only way to do it,” he said.
But Markey and other officials said that the measures proposed in the bill, if in place in September, would have prevented the disaster. They accused Columbia of creating a culture that cut back on such safety mechanisms to save money, and said the legislation would force federal oversight.
“They fundamentally made that decision because it was cheaper not to have it,” said Mayor Dan Rivera of Lawrence, who has been critical of Columbia’s response to the disaster. “They put a price on a human being, and they put a price on the peace of our community.”