LAWRENCE — A map indicated that the valve sunk into the asphalt at South Broadway and Salem Street connected to a water pipe under the road — but the 2013 map was wrong and the device shouldn’t have been there at all.
A subcontractor from Indiana apparently didn’t know the valve controlled gas flow — not water — and closed it some time before 3 a.m. Friday to disastrous results, officials said Saturday. A razor-sharp disc in the valve then sliced a plastic pipe, unleashing potentially explosive gas into the predawn air Friday. A major leak followed, shocking South Lawrence residents and forcing them to evacuate their homes just over a year after gas fires and explosions rocked the Merrimack Valley.
“I’m in the impacted area. I got woken up at 4 o’clock in the morning and it scared my wife and my kids. So I feel the same way: When will we ever feel safe,” Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera asked Saturday afternoon. “The reality is that it’s up to the utility to make us feel safe.”
Rivera delivered his remarks at a news conference where officials announced that people displaced by the massive gas leak could return to South Lawrence and described missteps dating to 2013 that made the city relive fears and anxiety they’ve tried to bury since last year’s disaster.
Days earlier, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its findings on last September’s fires and explosions and faulted Columbia Gas for “weak engineering management.” The NTSB cited omissions on construction work that led to the supply system in parts of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover being overwhelmed by natural gas, setting off fires and explosions that killed 18-year-old Leonel Rondon and damaged more than 130 buildings.
Friday’s evacuation was ordered when the gas line was punctured by a crew from M.E. Simpson, Co. Inc., in Indiana, which was checking water valves on South Broadway as part of prep work for a road-paving project, officials said. A police officer on a detail assignment at the construction site smelled gas and alerted emergency responders at about 3:15 a.m. Friday, officials said.
The work crew smelled the gas, but didn’t know that it had punctured the gas line, said Brian Peña, acting director of Lawrence’s Department of Public Works.
Rivera said the valve should have been removed during pipeline reconstruction following the gas fires and explosions on Sept. 13, 2018.
“It is clear to me that this gas valve should not have even been there,” said Rivera. “It should have been removed as part of the pipeline reconstruction of last year and it was out of compliance with [state public utility standards].”
After last September’s gas explosions and fires, Columbia Gas inserted plastic replacement lines into most existing underground metal pipes, a change requiring the removal of valves, Peña said.
When officials learned Friday that a valve that should have been removed punctured the gas line, state regulators said they ordered Columbia Gas to check 45 gas valves to determine whether they complied with state standards.
Mark Kempic, president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, said 43 of the valves had been removed over the past year. On Saturday, he announced that crews had removed the valve boxes on the two others so they can’t be accessed, Kempic said.
Columbia Gas crews on Saturday were also inspecting valves along 8 miles of pipeline in Lawrence, he said.
“We are looking for every single valve, whether it’s on the city’s maps, on our maps, on any map, or on no map and we are going to make sure that none of those valves are going to cause any problem like this,” Kempic said.
The valve that punctured the gas line isn’t marked on paper maps of the city’s water system, which Peña estimated to be at least 100 years old.
In 2013, a subcontractor helping to create digital maps of Lawrence’s water pipes mislabeled the gas valve as belonging to a water pipe and the misinformation was included on a geographic information system map paid for by the city, Peña said.
The contractor in charge of creating the digital map was Woodard & Curran, an engineering firm, he said. The same company hired M.E. Simpson Co. Inc., which has been working since March to inspect 1,421 water valves on South Lawrence streets that require repaving, Peña said.
Rivera urged people who had been evacuated from South Lawrence to return to the neighborhood. By 9 p.m. Saturday, gas crews had restored service to nearly all homes and businesses, but could not get into 15 properties. Crews will continue to try to contact those customers, a Columbia gas spokesman said.
Most residents had been allowed to return Friday evening, but 31 families spent the night in area hotels, Rivera said.
Electricity was restored to all customers by 11 a.m. Saturday, a National Grid spokesman said. Nearly 1,400 customers had their lights turned off after the gas leak was detected, but most got power back Friday night, he said.
South Broadway between Andover and Merrimack streets was expected to remain closed until at least Sunday morning, said Lawrence Fire Chief Brian F. Moriarty.
The Rev. Paul O’Brien, pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in South Lawrence, was among the evacuees.
“For an awful lot of people in this community, their worst fear is based on their experience connected with being evacuated from their neighborhood because of a gas incident,” O’Brien said.
Then, he said, “it happened again.”
Carleen’s, a breakfast spot on South Broadway, was closed Saturday for the second day in a row. Owner John Farrington, 52, taped a sign to the window reading, “Due to an apparent yearly event we have been forced to close AGAIN today.”
“A year of my life has been just digging out of this mess,” Farrington said. “I have a long struggle to get back to where I should be.”
At a noon rally at Fidelity House, a care facility in Lawrence for people with disabilities, US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III and US Senator Edward J. Markey asked for answers and accountability.
Kennedy is challenging Markey in next year’s Democratic primary for US Senate. He called the gas leak “inexcusable” and an “absolute tragedy.”
Kennedy and Markey support legislation named for Rondon, who was killed in last year’s disaster. Supporters say the measure would tighten pipeline safety standards and close regulatory loopholes.
“We need answers,” Markey said. “That’s why I held a hearing last November here in Lawrence on the gas explosion. And today, we’re asking very similar questions of Columbia Gas.”
Columbia Gas’s parent company, NiSource, has agreed to pay $143 million to settle class-action litigation and has spent millions of dollars installing new gas lines, repairing roads, and installing new appliances and heating systems in the three communities.