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A year later, Merrimack Valley is still recovering from the Columbia Gas disaster

Rosemary Smedile. a North Andover selectwoman, has yet to move back into her house, which was nearly destroyed. She had just left her house to run an errand when a neighbor called to tell her that her house was on fire.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

LAWRENCE — The devastating gas explosions that tore through the Merrimack Valley a year ago Friday remain fresh for thousands of the evacuated and displaced, for the owners of recovering businesses, and for the family of a Lawrence teenager who was killed in the disaster.

Its memories return with the whirring sound of a helicopter’s blades, with a glimpse of out-of-place pavement where new gas lines have been laid, and with shrunken balance sheets at once-shuttered stores that are trying to woo back customers.

On Thursday, the lingering sense of unease was compounded with news that Columbia Gas of Massachusetts will need to reinspect 700 of 4,900 service lines that the company abandoned and replaced after the explosions in Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover.


Columbia Gas discovered in July that two abandoned service lines might not have been capped properly or identified in compliance with government regulations, according to Scott Ferson, a company spokesman.

As a result, hundreds of residents and business owners are being contacted to schedule yet another utility inspection around the grim anniversary. Columbia Gas officials insisted that the public is not at risk. But for many residents, the timing made it hard not to worry.

“This is troubling news,” said Rosemary Smedile, a North Andover selectwoman who has yet to move back into her house, which was nearly destroyed by fire. “It's causing a sense of uneasiness among the people in the neighborhood. They’re asking, ‘Do I need to get out of my house?’ ”

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera rebuked the utility, which federal safety investigators faulted for the explosions and fires that displaced 8,000 people, for not notifying the state until Wednesday.

“While Columbia Gas insists there is no immediate threat to public safety, I do not believe they are a credible source,” Rivera said. “Since this oversight begs the question, ‘What other compliance was overlooked or safety measures missed?’ ”


Rivera said he had been in contact with state regulators to discuss potential safety measures.

April Vitulli made dinner at a Lawrence soup kitchen.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

On Wednesday, the state Department of Public Utilities ordered Columbia Gas to “conduct leak surveillance that ensures public safety in all of the areas where the abandoned services are located” and provide the state with daily updates.

The utility was also told to provide DPU with the location of leaks within a half-mile of abandoned services.

“If Columbia Gas of Massachusetts fails to carry out any of these orders, it may be assessed penalties up to $1 million per violation,” DPU chairman Matthew Nelson said.

Rivera called on the state to fine the utility $33 million immediately — $1 million per day for the last 33 days that “they sat on this information and did not communicate with DPU or any of the communities.”

Columbia Gas discovered the compliance issues in a review of paperwork, Ferson said.

“We recognize that our customers have been through a difficult year as we conducted the recovery and restoration work in these communities,” said Mark Kempic, president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts. “We understand that additional work may frustrate them, and we apologize.”

The National Transportation Safety Board, in a preliminary report, has said that a Columbia Gas engineer failed to account for a critical sensor in a line that was being replaced. Once the line was disconnected, the sensor detected a loss in gas pressure that caused the system to pump a huge amount of gas into live lines.


The disaster led to a $143 million settlement by Columbia Gas and NiSource, its parent company, of all class-action lawsuits. The settlement will be used to pay about 147,000 eligible residents and more than 10,000 businesses.

The agreement is separate from $80 million paid to the three municipalities, and a confidential settlement with the family of Leonel Rondon, an 18-year-old who died when a chimney toppled onto a car he was sitting inside.

Rivera said that settlements and apologies are not enough. In an interview at his office this week, the mayor said that company executives failed in their response to the crisis.

“They could have put a little more heart in the process,” he said.

Rivera and others said the emotional toll of the explosions will linger long after the physical reconstruction has ended.

“Psychologically, we’ll feel out of whack,” he said.

That same afternoon, Tuongvi Huynh began crying at City Hall. Ever since Columbia Gas replaced her boiler and furnace, the temperature of her shower has fluctuated quickly between scalding hot and numbing cold, she said.

Huynh, who lives with two elderly parents, said she had contacted Columbia Gas about once a month since November, but that the problem was never fixed.

Finally, this week, the company told her in an e-mail that it is not responsible for valve issues, Huynh said.

“I trusted them,” Huynh said. “I’m so upset. It’s too, too much for me. It’s almost a year with the same problem.”


Columbia Gas officials said they would not comment on a specific claim, but added that Huynh could contact a third-party ombudsman with her concern.

Some repercussions of the explosions are difficult to quantify. Executive director Susan Sirois of Bread & Roses, which offers meals and other services to the hungry, said she believes the number of homeless has increased.

“For a lot of people, that will be the defining moment of their lives,” Sirois said. “That took trauma they could cope with and turned it into trauma they can’t survive.”

At Lawrence High School, facilities employee Cindy Hefner said she thinks about the explosions every day. She thinks about huddling with many of the school’s 3,000 students in the ball field. She thinks about a phone call from her 7-year-old grandson, who told her, “Please, Grandma, leave now. I don’t want you to die.”

At Moderno Appliance & Furniture in Lawrence, co-owners Suzanne Carey-Fernandez and Victor Fernandez said their business might feel a financial hit for five years because of lost sales and service business.

“We’re still living through it, honestly,” said Derek Mitchell, executive director of the Lawrence Partnership, an economic development nonprofit group. “When people started opening their doors again, the media went away.”

Kempic, the Columbia Gas president, said much remains to be done.

“We have a lot of room to go in getting our customers to trust us,” Kempic said. “I think when we have interactions with one customer, we see a lot of growth there in that level of trust. But overall in the community, there’s still a lot to grow.”


Anh Tran must wash dishes with cold water, which hurts her sensitive hands with winter approaching.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at Milton Valencia can be reached at