BOSTON -- A gas industry official told regulators Thursday that proposed rules requiring a professional engineer's approval of certain projects may be unnecessary because gas companies already follow heightened standards.
State regulators are hammering out rules that mandate an engineer's stamp on plans for "complex" projects that could pose a risk to public safety. The new rules stem from a 2018 law passed in response to the Merrimack Valley gas disaster.
The state Department of Public Utilities, which is drafting the rules, held an online hearing Thursday where an industry representative said utilities have since adopted guidelines, known as Pipeline Safety Management Systems, that make the new regulations unneeded.
Jose Costa, vice president of operations service at the Northeast Gas Association, said those guidelines include an engineering requirement that "provides another layer of protection that was not in place prior to 2018."
"Some of the proposed prescriptive requirements in this rule-making are already being addressed through other methods and programs," he told the panel.
Utilities, including National Grid and Eversource, have complained that the proposed regulations will be too costly, and that they are unnecessary.
Utilities have lobbied to limit the kinds of projects that must get an engineer's sign-off, and submitted a litany of proposed changes to the rules ahead of Thursday's hearing.
Brendan Vaughn, an attorney representing the utilities, made no mention of those requests Thursday but told regulators his clients "look forward to working with them."
Meanwhile, an engineering group cautioned against excluding certain types of gas projects from review.
"While there may be instances in which a licensed engineer is not needed, I urge caution in defining those instances too broadly," Anthony Morreale, president of the Massachusetts Society of Professional Engineers, wrote to regulators.
Gas industry officials have also raised concerns about a shortage of engineers who specialize in utility work, warning that delays could result.
But Morreale noted more than 15,000 licensed professional engineers are working in Massachusetts.
"I respectfully suggest that decisions about public safety should not be made based on the purported availability or not of personnel, but rather that companies tasked with upholding public safety adjust recruitment and hiring practices to ensure they are appropriately staffed," Morreale wrote in an April 1 letter.
The proposed rules contain a provision allowing utilities to ask for a waiver. The attorney general's office has requested that any waiver requests be made available to the public, similar to waivers on major gas pipeline projects.
Federal regulators say the Sept. 13, 2018 gas disaster was preceded by a series of glaring mistakes by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts in the years preceding the incident. Those included shoddy record keeping.
A National Transportation Safety Board report concluded the company had a "weak engineering management" system, information about safety sensors was missing from construction plans, and company officials scrambled to find shut-off valves as more than 130 fires and explosions ripped through the region.
The safety board was highly critical of Columbia Gas, suggesting the tragedy could have been avoided with better safety systems in place.
At the time of the disaster, Massachusetts was one of 30 states that exempted utilities from having licensed engineers review plans for construction work.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org