Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the correction that appears below.
An announcement that Columbia Gas has finished inspecting the last of nearly 5,000 abandoned gas service lines throughout the Merrimack Valley was greeted with a mix of relief and trepidation by town officials Tuesday.
The work was required after Columbia Gas finished replacing the destroyed gas system following the Sept. 13, 2018 gas disaster, which led to one death, mass evacuations, and millions of dollars in losses for hundreds of small- and medium-sized businesses.
The gas company installed 43.5 miles of new gas main lines and replaced 5,086 service lines -- which are gas pipes that run from the street to homes and businesses, providing fuel for cooking, heating or hot water heaters.
The work went on for four months.
Once the work was finished and street repaving began, however, more problems cropped up.
In September, Columbia Gas was ordered by the Department of Public Utilities to inspect 700 abandoned gas lines in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence. The DPU ordered the company to cap the abandoned lines or face $1 million in penalties for each line left uncapped. Columbia Gas representatives said 188 "required some form of remediation."
A gas leak in late September of this year triggered another round of inspections and orders from the DPU to inspect and cap another 2,200 lines, of which 688 required some form of remediation, the gas company said Tuesday.
Finally, Columbia Gas began the voluntary verification of a final set of approximately 2,000 former service lines, not required by the DPU, "out of an abundance of caution," the company said.
"The final set was completed this month and 53 required some form of remediation," according to a Columbia Gas release.
Columbia Gas president and COO Mark Kempic took responsibility for the shoddy work that led to the problems this fall.
“We acknowledge that some of last fall’s work was not completed in accordance with federal and state regulations and CMA protocols and we take full responsibility,” he said, via a press release. “Since last September’s gas event, we have been working to identify ways to enhance our operational and safety procedures across our Massachusetts footprint to proactively identify and mitigate issues as we work to rebuild customer and public confidence in our company.”
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said he was happy that this phase of the work has been finished.
"I'm glad this is over and thank them for doing it," he said. But, he added, now that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has weighed in, "I'm looking forward to the work of the DPU in reviewing this whole disaster."
When the NTSB investigation was completed, it opened the door for the state to launch its own investigation of the gas company's work before, during and after the September 2018 disaster.
That investigation is ongoing.
Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan said he was looking forward to getting the town's roads paved.
"We can move on with what we need to do to make neighborhoods whole again," he said. "We should have a clear path to completing our paving and road restoration work over the course of the next three years and finally put September 13th behind us."
He added, however, that the town and its residents have "no toleration for any additional delays or inconveniences."
According to a statement from the DPU, the agency "can confirm that Columbia Gas has completed, as ordered by DPU, the verification of approximately 700 former service lines that involved sleeved mains, as well as approximately 2,200 former service lines that involved non-sleeved mains."
"Sleeved mains" refers to new, plastic lines that were inserted into old, cast iron lines.
"DPU will continue to closely monitor all of Columbia Gas’ work to ensure that they follow all state and federal requirements as well as their own company policies," the statement said.
After the late September gas leak that led to another round of evacuations and business closures, the DPU placed a moratorium on all work being done by Columbia Gas.
That moratorium, according to the DPU, is "ongoing. While this moratorium is for all of Columbia Gas’ service territory, a few exceptions apply: Emergency work on its gas distribution system; ongoing work to address the previously identified issues with abandoned services and gate boxes in Merrimack Valley, including the repairs of Grade 1, 2, or 3 gas leaks in that area; and, work requested by Columbia and approved by the DPU. For example, the DPU anticipates approving work involving new customer service connections of heating supply for new and existing customers."
According to the DPU, Columbia Gas has at least one more deadline to meet.
By Dec. 2, which is Monday, Columbia Gas is "required to report to the DPU data on all noncompliant work and any patterns, correlations, and trends identified through the service line abandonment verification."
North Andover Town Manager Melissa Rodriguez could not be reached for comment for this story.
Kempic, meanwhile, thanked the communities in a release for their patience.
“We have appreciated the patience and cooperation of our customers and the communities over the last two months, which allowed us to complete this project ahead of schedule and in a safe manner,” he said.
Company spokesman Scott Ferson added: "Columbia Gas remains committed to the long-term recovery of the Merrimack Valley and our customers in the area, and we will continue to look for ways to support these communities in the years ahead."
CORRECTION -- A story in Wednesday's Eagle-Tribune incorrectly stated there was a gas "explosion" in late September of this year. It was actually a gas leak that caused evacuations and business closures in Lawrence.