Oct. 15–When Stephen Adgate heard on Monday that the gas lines were burgeoning beneath his city, the Woburn fire chief said he felt chest pains.
Surely, images of explosions and fires ripping through the Merrimack Valley flashed through his mind. Three and a half weeks earlier, a spike in gas pressure as much as 12 times normal had caused so many emergencies that Adgate’s fellow chiefs in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover called on colleagues from around the state to help cover them all.
Adgate quickly learned Monday that things were in hand, and Woburn would not see a replay of what happened to the north. Still, the very possibility that the Merrimack Valley’s gas disaster might not be an isolated incident has seriously raised the stakes for the utilities and their regulators in the state to quickly ensure the public’s safety.
What happened in Lawrence and neighboring communities — which killed one person, injured dozens and left nearly 8,600 homes and businesses without gas service — was only officially explained Thursday, when the National Transportation Safety Board issued an early report on the Sept. 13 incident. it involved a Columbia Gas project to replace an old line with a new one, according to the NTSB, and the utility’s apparent failure to account for sensors that measure and help regulate pressure in the system.
The Woburn problem happened when a worker doing routine maintenance for a different utility, National Grid, sent too much gas into the system. The error was quickly discovered, according to the utility, though it led to the temporary shutdown of service to some 300 homes.
Echoes of the Merrimack Valley incident are chilling. They’re even more worrisome in light of warnings about the safety of National Grid’s pipelines coming from unions representing 1,250 workers who’ve been locked out of their jobs with the utility since June. John Buonopane, president of one of those unions, United Steelworkers Local 12003, has said some of those problems could lead to the same kind of situation that happened in the Merrimack Valley.
The state Department of Public Utilities responded quickly after the Woburn problem, demanding that National Grid cease any non-emergency work in the state. The department had already criticized National Grid for a “persistent disregard for federal and state pipeline safety regulations.” And it had already said, on Sept. 26, that it planned to hire an independent evaluator to check the natural gas network throughout the state.
We’re still waiting to hear about its progress, but clearly that project has added urgency. The Department of Public Utilities, Attorney General Maura Healey and others who watch over companies including Columbia Gas and National Grid cannot be cautious enough, inquisitive enough or demanding enough that they get real answers about what’s being done to ensure the safety of natural gas customers and the public.
Speaking of growing pressure, it’s hard to see now how National Grid continues to stand its ground in a labor dispute with the steelworkers. To be fair, such negotiations are typically fraught. The reported sticking points between National Grid and its unions — over health costs and retirement benefits — are rarely easy to resolve. We won’t take a position except to note that National Grid’s self-described plan to offer new workers a 401(k) style retirement plan, rather than a pension, is hardly groundbreaking in and of itself.
That aside, as a growing list of officials including Gov. Charlie Baker have said, and events now show, there are real consequences of keeping the steelworkers locked out and sending replacement workers and managers to do their jobs. National Grid must do everything within its power to settle this dispute, lest these gas emergencies be reprised yet again.
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