Rivera: 'Plenty of fault to go around' for gas leak

RYAN HUTTON/Staff file photoLawrence Deputy Fire Chief John McInnis, center, walks away from the site of a massive gas leak cause by construction equipment at the intersection of Knox and Jackson streets in Lawrence on Thursday.

LAWRENCE — The massive gas leak that forced the evacuation of some 100 homes in Lawrence Thursday was the result of "a failure of coordination," Mayor Daniel Rivera said. 

The gas line was struck about 1:15 p.m. by an excavator being used by Defelice Corp., a private company contracted to upgrade the city's water system. Rivera said the company hit the gas line because of confusion created by an incomplete map of the underground utilities. 

"In the end, it felt like everybody has a little bit of information but nobody had all of the information. I'm going to call this a failure of coordination," Rivera said. "The bottom line on this is there's plenty of fault to go around. ... In the end the city will be reimbursed for the costs of this incident."

The mayor added that he was very upset about the situation. 

Rivera said the accident occurred because maps of the underground utility lines, created by the Andover-based consulting firm Woodard & Curran, did not display inactive utility lines under the street. The map of the intersection at Jackson and Knox streets, where the leak sprung, also differed from the orange spray paint markings on the street by about 5 feet.

Noting the discrepancy between the street markings and the map, Defelice workers began excavating by hand so as not to hit a line. When they located a gas line, the crew brought in the heavy machinery; but they had actually unearthed an inactive gas line that was not labeled on the map. Unaware of the active line nearby, the crew struck that pipe with the excavator, creating the massive gas leak. 

Representatives of Defelice Corp. and Woodard & Curran could not be reached for comment Friday. 

Rivera, police Chief Roy Vasque, deputy fire Chief Kevin Laughlin and representatives of the various utility, construction, and consulting agencies involved in the project — including Columbia Gas, National Grid, Defelice Corp. and Woodard & Curran — met via conference call at 10 a.m. Friday to learn what had gone wrong the day before. Rivera said the conversation "was not a pleasant one."

On the Friday morning conference call, Rivera said several strategies were devised to prevent a similar issue from happening while Defelice completes the water upgrades — a project that has been underway for at least six years already, according to the mayor. 

Rivera said there will be a "full review" of the plans provided to the city and to Defelice, and "where the ground markings are different by more than a few inches, we're going to have them at a full stop until the engineers can validate" the location of the utility lines.

Additionally, Defelice will now verify the accuracy of the Woodard & Curran maps weeks before excavation, instead of the day of, and coordination meetings between all involved parties will be scheduled each week. 

Rivera said he was told that "from the edge of one pipe to the edge of another," 5 feet is "within the margin of error" when drawing maps of the underground utilities. Defelice also told the city that the inactive pipe was "the same vintage" as the active pipe, making it difficult to discern that the one the crew unearthed first was not an active line. 

Columbia Gas told the mayor the leak lasted as long as it did — about four hours — because they were unable to locate the shut-off valve for that particular line. 

"For that pipe specifically, they just could not find the box that led to the off switch," Rivera said, adding that they eventually "made the decision to seal it at the cut" because they "never found" the switch. 

"They're going to go back this week and find it," he said. "It's the biggest problem of what we had yesterday, the fact that the gas was leaking so long."

Tracy Stefanowicz, spokeswoman for Columbia Gas, said Friday the company was "in the midst" of an investigation themselves. 

"We do have maps, there are records that detail where our lines are and that's part of our investigation," Stefanowicz said, noting that the company will do an excavation next week in the area. "It's premature for us to make a determination about what happened because without us doing that excavation ... we really don't know."

The mayor said the city is still calculating the costs incurred in overtime for city employees, but he estimated it will be between $5,000 and $7,000. Rivera said any additional costs in road repairs necessitated by the leak will be the responsibility of the utility companies, not the city.

"I think we're going to make sure that everyone feels some of the pain, that we're not left holding the bag," he said. "We're talking to National Grid and to Columbia Gas about customers who had other problems as well." 

National Grid was on the scene Thursday to shut off electricity as a precaution. That company did not have gas lines that were affected.