Columbia Gas hit on lack of information

Courtesy photoMark Kempic, president and CEO of Columbia Gas Massachusetts, explains how a residential shut-off valve works, preventing gas from entering a dwelling in the event of a leak elsewhere in the system.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the correction that appears below.

LAWRENCE — The communication gap continues.

Slammed for its inability to effectively communicate with the public and public safety officials during and after the Sept. 13, 2018, fires and explosions, Columbia Gas was criticized again this week. Some city councilors blamed the company for failing to tell homeowners and businesses when it would be digging up sidewalks, lawns and streets in front of their homes to check the safety of underground pipes, valves and pumps.

"I've had complaints and dozens of calls from people who didn't know there was work going on in their street," At-Large City Councilor Pavel Payano told Mark Kempic, the president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts during a hearing Tuesday night. "We in South Lawrence have suffered trauma -- twice. When you send someone to work in the street, there should be more information for everyone."

District 4 City Councilor Marc Laplante agreed, saying after the meeting that "communications has always been a big deal. There's a big disconnect between communication with single-family homeowners and multifamily tenants."

He said while it's difficult to communicate with people living in multi-family dwellings, the gas company has to do a better job of explaining what they are doing.

"Right after the mini gas crisis (the Sept. 27, 2019 gas leak and evacuation) Columbia Gas crews were on Springfield Street," Laplante said. "I went down one night, and people were concerned. There was nothing nefarious going on, they were just going through abandoned lines and capping them. But there were trucks everywhere, yellow lights were flashing, and because they were digging, it caused all this anxiety."

He added: "People were calling, saying, 'Is this happening again?'"

Kempic attended the Tuesday night City Council meeting to go over the progress the company has made in switching out old, cast-iron lines for new lines, installing high-pressure shut-offs, checking on service lines and more.

Overall, he said, the company is hitting the goals set for it by the state Department of Public Utilities in checking on connections inside and outside of homes while also amping up its leak detection and repair abilities.

But, he admitted after the meeting in an interview with The Eagle-Tribune, "we could do better."

He said it's been extremely difficult communicating with every tenant or homeowner whose property needs to be inspected.

"Peoples' voicemails are filled, or they don't answer the phone," he said, referring to a couple of the stumbling blocks his employees have encountered in getting in touch with people.

He said the company has done spots on Spanish radio, has taken out ads in The Eagle-Tribune, in both English and Spanish, and has sent letters and emails to people informing them of pending work in their neighborhood or on their property.

He said company representatives also put up door-hangers, which are notices hung on door knobs with information about pending work in the area.

"We used the best available information for emails and letters but we couldn't get to all customers. It's always a challenge, "especially when customers are on edge," he said.

He communicates weekly via email to all "front-line employees" of Columbia Gas telling them they are the best ambassadors for the company and should do everything in their power to instill confidence in the company.

"They need to explain why they are there and what they are doing," he said. "We've had a lot of training on that."

He said the company has a "nice, new training facility" in Shrewsbury where new employees are put through a rigorous training regimen, much of it devoted to customer service.

Communication isn't the only concern raised during Tuesday night's meeting.

Laplante asked Kempic about a statistic he gave during his presentation that there have been 69 leaks that crews have responded to since Sept. 27, when a huge leak forced the evacuation of dozens of homes and businesses in part of South Lawrence.

"Sixty-nine sounds like a lot," Laplante said. 

Kempic said there were three types of leaks, Grades 1-3. Grade 1 are the worst.

In the past, he said, only the worst leaks were fixed. Now, when the utility gets a call about a leak, they fix every single one of them, which includes excavation, repair, restoration and repaving.

"We are sorry for the Sept. 13 and Sept. 27 incidents, and we are working to make sure these issues don't happen again," he said.

CORRECTION: A story in Friday’s Eagle-Tribune about Columbia Gas CEO Mark Kempic’s presentation to the Lawrence City Council incorrectly identified the most severe gas leaks. They are considered Grade 1 leaks.

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