Area residents criticize Columbia Gas at hearing

Amanda Sabga/Staff PhotoHundreds of people wait in line, and more wait inside, at a Columbia Gas claims center set up in the Lawrence High School Learning center on Monday morning at the after a massive natural gas disaster affected areas in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. 

ANDOVER — Columbia Gas, whose overpressurized transmission lines caused numerous explosions and fires in the area Sept. 13, 2018, drew a withering barrage of criticism at a state Department of Public Utilities hearing Monday evening.

Several residents also chided the DPU for failing to hold the company accountable and not doing an adequate job of inspecting gas lines.

Gladys Gitau-Damaskos, a Lawrence resident and teacher, read a poem she wrote about the gas disaster. She told about boiling water so she could take a shower.

“This was a preventable tragedy,” Karen Martin said. Several other speakers echoed her view.

Laurie Kobelski of Andover, who owns a heating and air conditioning company, asked, “Will this happen again? It seems probable.”

She suggested that gas companies be required to install alarms to alert customers when their gas lines are overpressurized.

Jeffrey Ballinger of Andover said only two DPU gas inspectors were working when the gas crisis occurred. They were responsible, he said, for 21,000 miles of gas pipelines throughout the state.

“The fact that there was a valve leak in Lawrence forcing many residents to evacuate less than five months ago is not an encouraging sign,” he said.

John Buonopane, president of Local 12003 of the gas workers union, said that during his 31 years in the industry, he never saw a DPU pipe inspector, according to Ballinger.

“Who is checking on Columbia Gas?” Lynne Rudnicki of North Andover said. “When are you going to report back to our community?” she asked DPU officials seated on the stage at Andover High School. Nearly 50 people attended the hearing.

Vicente De La Rosa of Lawrence described the confusion of that day when he and thousands of other people were ordered to leave their homes.

“We didn’t know where we were going,” De La Rosa said. He and his family ended up staying in a hotel.

De La Rosa said it’s time to look for “other kinds of energy” besides natural gas and other fossil fuels. State Sen. Barry Finegold and state Rep. Tram Nguyen, both D-Andover, also expressed that view.

The Rev. Joel Almono, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Lawrence, whose congregation includes many people who were uprooted by the disaster, said, “Many Lawrence residents didn’t receive what they needed.”

He noted dozens of residents were provided with trailers for temporary housing – but many of them did not have cars to get to the trailers.

Rafael Disla of Lawrence said his debts are “much higher” as a result of the disaster.

Many speakers criticized the conduct of Columbia Gas employees. Rick Cavallaro of Lawrence, a self-employed computer consultant, said one could “wallpaper the Statehouse” with the number of pictures Columbia Gas took of his boiler.

They ended up replacing just one valve, he said.

“I am forced to be a customer of Columbia Gas,” he said. “I don’t understand why they are still operating in this state. I want them gone.”

Four DPU officials heard the testimony of officials and residents: Cecile Fraser, commissioner; Michael Conkey, assistant director of pipeline safety; and Laurie Weisman and Lauren Morris, hearing officers.

Dean Lieberman, a representative for Columbia Gas, gave the following statement to The Eagle-Tribune:

“This public input hearing is an important part of the DPU’s investigation. Enhancing public safety is our top priority, so we welcome DPU efforts to learn from the incident, including through this public input hearing.

“This was a valuable opportunity for members of the public to provide comments. The company was there to listen. Today was about hearing from the public.

“While we didn’t have a formal role in today’s public input hearing, we welcome the opportunity to hear from the public. We have been and will continue to work cooperatively and transparently with the DPU on their investigations.”

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