Noting 2018 Gas Explosions, Area Legislators Add Safety Provisions to Climate Change Bill

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, second from left, with Gov. Charlie Baker and leaders from Andover and North Andover during a press conference in the wake of the September 2018 explosions and fires across the Merrimack Valley. (Jay Saulnier file photograph for WHAV News.)

A major climate change bill approved Tuesday by the legislature contains significant provisions to address natural gas safety added by the Merrimack Valley delegation, including Sens. Barry Finegold, Diana DiZoglio and Bruce Tarr and Reps. Frank Moran, Christina Minicucci, Marcos Devers and Tram Nguyen.

The actions respond to the 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 his ca. The explosions resulted in a string of injuries from fires and other disruptions after Columbia Gas over-pressurized natural gas lines. Tens of thousands of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover residents were displaced from their homes and places of work.

In a statement, Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, whose district includes North Andover, said, “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.”

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 training regulations and certifying utility contractors; instructing the department 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; and increasing penalties for failure to restore service after emergencies.

Provisions also call for 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 in a timely manner; 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.

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.

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.

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