A major climate policy bill approved by the Legislature contains significant provisions to address natural gas safety, thanks in large part to efforts in the Senate by the Merrimack Valley delegation.
The actions respond to the tragic 2018 Merrimack Valley explosions which took the life of Leonel Rondon, an 18 year old who died after a chimney from a house explosion collapsed on the car he was in. The gas explosions resulted in a string of injuries from fires, and other disruptions after Columbia Gas over-pressurized natural gas lines. Tens of thousands of North Andover, Lawrence and Andover residents were displaced from their homes and places of work.
Elements of An Act Creating a Next-Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy addressing natural gas safety include:
• Requiring the Department of Public Utilities to issue new regulations relative to training and certifying utility contractors;
• Instructing the Department of Public Utilities to set standards for maintaining gas distribution maps and records;
• Directing gas companies to report “disruptions in the provision of electronic data” as a service quality metric;
• Adding whistleblower protections for utility employees who report violations of law by their employers;
• Increasing penalties for failure to restore service after emergencies;
• Raising the cap on civil penalties for gas pipeline safety violations, allowing for fines in excess of those set by federal law;
• Requiring all written complaints regarding gas service to be investigated and responded to in a timely manner, and directing the DPU to establish a publicly-accessible database of such complaints; and
• Strengthening gas company plans to address aging and leaking infrastructure, by setting interim targets for reducing gas leak rates and authorizing the DPU to levy fines for non-compliance.
“I am so grateful that among other important measures, this bill increases penalties for failure to restore service after emergencies; requires new regulations around training and certifying utility contractors; extends whistleblower protections to utility employees who report violations by their employers, and creates a database in which all written complaints around gas service will be made public,” said Senator Diana DiZoglio (D – Methuen). “There remains much work to be done but these are nonetheless key steps in our efforts to prevent future incidents.”
“The tragedy, hardship, suffering and economic damage that North Andover, Lawrence, and Andover have endured because of the gas explosions of September 2018 compel us to take effective action to prevent such events from ever happening again,” said Senator Bruce Tarr (R – Gloucester). He added that “we must not fail to learn from what has happened and do everything possible to make our natural gas system safer. Our legislative members from the House and the Senate have worked in a bipartisan and focused way to achieve that goal.”
“This crucial legislation will hold public utility companies accountable, strengthen safety standards, and help prevent natural gas disasters in the future,” said Senator Barry Finegold (D – Andover). “The Columbia Gas explosions devastated our community. A young man lost his life, families spent months homeless, and many suffered significant financial hardships. I look forward to continuing to work with local, state, and federal officials to increase regulatory oversight of the natural gas industry and help the Merrimack Valley recover from the Columbia Gas tragedy.”
The federal National Transportation Safety Board last year, in a 73-page report, stated “weak engineering management that did not adequately plan, review, sequence, and oversee the construction project” was a factor that disrupted the gas distribution system.
Members of the Merrimack Valley delegation called for oversight hearings of Columbia Gas immediately following the incident. At a 2019 hearing of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, the lawmakers stressed the important role the Legislature should play with state regulators to make sure these and similar operations are safe, effective and efficient.
The members stressed that while the bill contains important measures to increase safety, they will be seeking additional measures for that purpose in the new legislative session. With the support of the House of Representatives and final passage in the Senate, the bill now moves to the desk of Governor Baker for his consideration.