EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 11, 2014

Editorial: Investigation into gas main break is welcome

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — A break in a natural gas main in Andover disrupted service to hundreds of customers and snarled traffic in the River Road area last week. But it could have been much worse.

The high-pressure main was struck and damaged by a construction company digging a trench for a sewer line extension on River Road. The break sent a 20-foot high geyser of natural gas and debris into the air for nearly four hours as the gas company struggled to shut down the line.

Now, Columbia Gas and the contractor, MDR Construction of Tewksbury, are trading accusations over who is to blame for the accident. MDR’s president says the location of the gas line was not properly marked on the roadway. The gas company insists the line was properly marked.

So an investigation planned by the state Department of Public Utilities is welcome. The incident disrupted gas service to 260 customers. Electricity was shut off to nearly 700 customers, including two schools, as officials sought to prevent a potential source of ignition for the escaping gas. The high volume of gas that was released could have produced a tremendous explosion. The investigation should also determine who will be responsible for the costs of the incident.

More importantly, the investigation may suggest ways to prevent these kinds of accidents in the future.

On Thursday, an employee of MDR was digging a 17-foot deep trench for the sewer line when he hit the 6-inch, plastic, high-pressure gas line. Columbia Gas had difficulty shutting off the flow of gas because a valve near the break was covered with asphalt, a company spokeswoman said. Eventually, the company was able to pinch the line closed.

Columbia Gas spokeswoman Andrea Luppi said on Thursday that the gas line was properly marked. But MDR Construction President Mike Saccone said the line was not where it was supposed to be.

Saccone told reporter Bill Kirk the lines spray-painted on the street by Dig Safe indicate that the gas line runs along the edge of the roadway. But, he said, the excavator was digging in the middle of the street when it hit the gas line.

“They were about 30 inches off,” he said. “More importantly, there was no indication in the markings of four 45-degree bends in the pipe. They went out and around something. The gas pipe was running along the edge of road, then bumped out into middle of the road. The marks that are there now can’t be right.”

Saccone said he was irritated that the Columbia Gas spokeswoman accused his company of hitting the gas line.

“They shouldn’t be pointing fingers,” he told Kirk, adding that the sewer line is going to have to be re-designed and re-engineered. “The engineer would never have located that sewer line there if he knew the gas pipe was there. I don’t know who’s to blame, or why it was the way it was. I’m just glad nobody got hurt.”

Redesigning the sewer line isn’t the only expense that will result from the accident.

Andover Fire Chief Mike Mansfield told Kirk a large volume of natural gas escaped into the atmosphere.

“Somebody is going to have to pay for that,” he said, adding that the value of the lost natural gas is likely to be well into six-figures.

The gas leak also shut down traffic on busy River Road for more than 24 hours while gas company crews repaired the pipe and paving contractors resurfaced the road.

The Department of Public Utilities will examine documentation on the location of underground utilities in the area and the markings on the street. The investigation could result in civil fines and penalties for the responsible party.

Significant fines would be appropriate here. While the gas main rupture caused only inconvenience and not injuries, the potential for a major, life-threatening disaster here was high.