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Columbia Gas crews return to Merrimack Valley

Workers last December removed a new stove that Columbia Gas installed inside a Lawrence house, but which turned out to be defective. in Lawrence.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff/File 2018/Globe Staff

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts executives announced plans Thursday to return to the Merrimack Valley to replace hundreds of heating appliances in homes affected by the Sept. 13 natural gas disasters, resuming work that was postponed for the winter.

Mark Kempic, Columbia’s chief operating officer, said officials hope to replace appliances at a rate of 50 homes per week, with the goal of completing some 900 properties by late August.

Other crews, meanwhile, will be repairing lawns, driveways, and in some cases sidewalks that were damaged during the emergency restoration last fall.

When necessary, crews will also repair at no cost replacement appliances that Columbia installed in the first weeks after the disaster. That offer is open to eligible homeowners through May 2020.

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“We wanted to give customers a sense we’re not going to forget about any customer,” said Kempic, who will take over as president of the local utility on May 1, and will oversee the restoration.

He said Columbia continues to maintain a claims process for customers to seek reimbursements for damaged items they had repaired or replaced. Already, the company has paid out $99.7 million in nearly 25,000 filed claims.

The replacement of appliances remains one of Columbia’s last hurdles in the restoration process before it can claim mission accomplished following the worst natural gas disaster in Massachusetts. More than 8,000 metered customers — connecting to more than 10,000 units — were affected by the disasters, which caused more than 120 fires and explosions across Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover.

Tens of thousands of residents were temporarily evacuated, and hundreds of families were displaced as crews worked to restore service. That effort included the replacement of more than 43 miles of underground pipeline, as well as lines to individual homes.

Though most customers had appliances replaced, officials could only repair appliances in some 900 homes before winter. Replacing those remaining appliances will involve an elaborate outreach effort to schedule the work at each customer’s convenience.

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Kempic said officials started a “soft rollout” last week of seven homes, and will increase that effort to 50 to 60 homes a week.

“We will continue to progress at a quick, accelerated” pace, he said.

Kempic said crews will also resurface roads dug up during the pipe replacement work, though the company is still negotiating that with the three affected communities.

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said that he welcomed the resumption of work. But at the same time, he criticized Columbia Gas for withholding some payments on the restoration.

“They decided to put off these important measures because they’re hiding behind the bureaucracy,” he said.

The investigation into the disaster, which killed one person and injured more than 20, continues, though a preliminary review by the US National Transportation and Safety Board found it was caused by overpressurization. A Columbia Gas engineer had failed to relocate a pressure sensor in plans for the pipe replacement project, the NTSB said, meaning a key safety feature was not in place when construction was completed and the gas turned back on. That, in turn, led to a massive amount of gas being pumped into the local network, overwhelming the system.

Earlier this week, US Senator Edward Markey and other members of the area’s congressional delegation introduced federal legislation — named after 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, the lone fatal victim in the incident — on gas pipeline safety that they said would prevent the disaster. The proposal demands more preventative measures from utilities, and increases penalties for violations.

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