After the Merrimack Valley gas explosions on Sept. 13, the National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation with two goals: understanding how 80 fires and explosions erupted in three communities, and recommending ways to prevent such a tragic incident in the future.
Last week, after two months of work, the agency issued a set of safety recommendations. Most of its findings are directed at NiSource, the parent company of Columbia Gas, which operates the gas distribution network in the area and was faulted for inadequate safeguards on the day of the disaster.
One of the board’s recommendations, though, is for Beacon Hill: The Commonwealth, the investigators said, should require that all utilities — not just Columbia Gas — have a professional engineer review utility work plans in the future. Professional engineers hold a state license and receive years of training: If one had reviewed Columbia Gas’s plans that day, the NTSB said, he or she would “likely” would have flagged the safety lapses that lead to the explosions.
The NTSB is widely regarded as the gold standard of federal safety watchdogs, and the state ought to heed its advice. Doing so will require a change to state law: A spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said the administration was “in the process of reviewing the recommendations and will work with the Legislature to fully comply.”
The Legislature should act quickly, and utilities shouldn’t wait until it’s mandatory to start following the NTSB recommendations.
Then, once they have, the state can phase out the two moratoriums on new gas hookups that the Department of Public Utilities imposed after the disaster. The moratoriums have been a reasonable precaution, but they’re now starting to compound the economic damage caused by the labor dispute at National Grid.
The state has imposed two separate freezes on new gas hookups: one, for obvious reasons, in Columbia Gas territory, and the other in National Grid’s network. National Grid hasn’t suffered a disaster like Columbia Gas, but it did have an overpressurization event in Woburn that raised concerns with state regulators about its safety practices. The National Grid moratorium, in particular, has caused rising alarm in Greater Boston. The utility already had a service backlog after locking out some of its gas workers amid a labor dispute, but the moratorium has made its backlog worse.
Businesses — in particular, real estate developers — are starting to panic. Buildings that are basically complete except for their gas service can’t open. They can’t sit idle either: Buildings need heat to prevent pipes from freezing. Converting a large building that’s 90 percent finished to propane or electricity instead can be expensive or impractical.
And the inability to hook up new buildings sends ripple effects throughout the economy. For instance, workers at a new hotel or restaurant that had expected to open by now don’t have paychecks they might have been counting on. The moratorium is also preventing homeowners in Columbia Gas and National Grid territory from making oil-to-gas conversions, which also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
During the gubernatorial campaign, Governor Charlie Baker said he didn’t want to lift the National Grid moratorium until the lockout was settled. But the two issues shouldn’t be mixed together. Baker should keep the pressure on the two sides to reach an agreement. But in the meantime, if work can be done safely by National Grid’s replacement workers, and the utility can meet NTSB’s recommendation regarding professional engineers, the state should allow them to start tackling the backlog.
Requiring highly trained certified professional engineers isn’t some radical idea. The state already requires them on bridge, tunnel, and other types of infrastructure. Like many states, Massachusetts has exempted public utilities from that requirement, but Arthur Schwartz, deputy executive director and general counsel of the National Society of Professional Engineers, which supports ending utility exemptions, said the loopholes were outdated. “We think people who are designing gas utility systems should be licensed and held accountable,” he said.
The report provides a roadmap to bolster safety at the region’s gas utilities by adding a layer of professional oversight. If Columbia Gas, National Grid, and other utilities follow that recommendation, the public can feel more confident that catastrophic incident related to overpressurization won’t be repeated.