NTSB: Shoddy Work by Columbia Gas Led to ‘Catastrophic’ Merrimack Valley Disaster

Gov. Charlie Baker (third from left) joined local leaders from Andover, Lawrence and North Andover during a press conference in the wake of the September 2018 explosions and fires across the Merrimack Valley. (Jay Saulnier photograph for WHAV News)

A “weak engineering management system” put in place by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts coupled with things like shoddy record keeping led to last September’s “catastrophic” Merrimack Valley gas-related fire disaster, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded Tuesday.

Issuing its final findings this week, the agency placed blame for the Sept. 13, 2018 incident squarely on the utility, arguing that the company failed to produce maps for firefighters and first responders to locate shut-off valves in the wake of the incident that left a Lawrence teen dead and several others seriously injured.

“It’s amazing to me that a company that operated this system for more than 100 years could not produce a map, a readily made map, to firefighters to show the extent of the system,” NTSB’s Robert Hall said Tuesday.

More than 130 fires and explosions rippled through Lawrence, Andover and North Andover after the initial shock on Sept. 13. According to the NTSB, catastrophe could have been prevented if better record keeping processes were in place. Building on a preliminary report issued last year, Tuesday’s meeting confirmed that a Columbia engineer with limited experience failed to note where pressure sensors were when a gas replacement project took place. As a result, an over-pressurization of the line ignited fires in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.

The NTSB said a Columbia employee flagged the omission in 2016 but it was never corrected. “They knew that these sensing lines had to be relocated. They knew that. But the constructability reviews, the project reviews, the reviews by mangers, engineers, none of this review process addressed the shortcoming,” NTSB’s investigator in charge Roger D. Evans said.

After the meeting took place, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera called for the revocation of Columbia’s license. “For the first time, we’re seeing the whole picture of how disorganized, unprepared and overwhelmed Columbia Gas was in dealing with the disaster: Least informed and last to act. I believe there is enough evidence here to constitute the removal of (their) license,” he said.

Others, including Congresswoman Lori Trahan, called to mind those impacted by last fall’s events when calling for change. Trahan joined with Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey to introduce the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act, legislation that addresses shortcomings discovered in the wake of the disaster. It is named for the Lawrence teen killed during the disaster.

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