LAWRENCE — Almost a year after gas explosions ravaged the Merrimack Valley, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts is just a few feathers away from restoring homes and businesses affected by the catastrophe that killed one teenager and displaced thousands for months.
The company announced Thursday that of the thousands of properties it had to fix as a result of the disaster, it was down to the last 21 sites, but that work is stalled on about half of them while the company waits for birds that are nesting in chimneys to leave.
“We cannot disturb the birds until they literally fly the coop on their own,” Columbia Gas of Massachusetts president Mark Kempic quipped at a news conference Thursday, adding, “we still have a lot to do and we’re not going away.”
Kempic said the utility expects to complete equipment replacement within days of Sept. 13, the one-year anniversary of the disaster. The current work is for customers who had temporary fixes performed last year as the utility raced to restore service before the onset of winter.
Also, the utility said it has repaired 150 driveways, as well as bushes, sidewalks, irrigation systems, and other property affected by the massive reconstruction of its underground pipe network.
The disaster was caused by over-pressurization of an underground network of gas pipes that set off more than 120 fires and explosions in sections of three Merrimack Valley communities, Andover, Lawrence, and North Andover. One man, 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, was killed, two dozen people were injured, and hundreds were forced into temporary housing.
A full report on the incident is expected from the National Transportation Safety Board by the end of the year, Kempic said, and he hopes it will reflect safety efforts by the company, such as installing devices that better monitor pressure in the system, and improved emergency preparedness plans.
Kempic said Columbia expects the total cost of repairs and other expenses related to the incident, such as temporary housing, to be $1.6 billion. Late last month, Columbia Gas announced that it had settled all class-action lawsuits stemming from the blasts for $143 million, a deal subject to judicial approval
But people in the Merrimack Valley are still dealing with the aftermath.
“Long after Columbia Gas has repaired the last house, we will still be here picking up the pieces to make our community whole again,” Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said in a statement. “That means dealing with families’ grief and pain and the negative impact to our local economy.”
To ensure the restoration is complete, Rivera said the city plans to check on people who were still waiting for repairs.
The Sept. 15 goal doesn’t include local roads because Columbia Gas gave each municipality funds to hire their own contractors and make repairs at their own pace. Lawrence has to pave 31 miles of road, according to Rivera.
Christopher Sullivan, a Lawrence resident who didn’t have power for three days following the explosions, said he feels safe with the new equipment in his Canal Street apartment. But he’s still frustrated by the condition of local roads.
Until road construction on Andover Street and South Broadway finished two weeks ago, cars and pedestrians couldn’t easily access Carleen’s Coffee Shop. Owner John Farrington said he lost most of his clientele while closed for three months, and he’s frustrated that business is still off from where it was before the incident.
“Give me the business I had this time last year back,” he said.
Waitress Jennifer Marsan said she’s not making the same money she used to and she can’t find another job that will allow her to take her 6-year-old son to and from school. “Regulars have found another spot,” she said. “People have moved on, unfortunately.”
Victor Moronta, 52, said he no longer felt comfortable living in his Boxford Street apartment and is struggling to afford a new place on his disability income. “It felt like Armageddon,” he said. “Now I’m paranoid.”
Moronta is one of nearly 100 residents and businessowners working with lawyer Stephen D’Angelo’s firm to bring individual damage claims against Columbia Gas.
D’Angelo said he’s representing mostly residents who “have experienced significant financial setbacks,” such as lost wages from missing work, health care costs, and emotional damages.