The state Department of Public Utilities has all but ordered Columbia Gas to cease operations in Massachusetts as a result of last year's gas disaster and more recent gas leaks and quality control issues that have plagued residents and businesses in the Merrimack Valley.

Columbia Gas is going along with the request.

On Thursday, the chairman of the DPU, Matthew Nelson, penned a letter to Columbia Gas president Mark Kempic, saying the company could only perform emergency work in the state.

"In recent weeks, the DPU has become aware of several troubling issues involving the operations of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts," he wrote. "On Sept. 11, 2019, you reported issues relating to service lines that were abandoned during the restoration work in Merrimack Valley following last year’s gas line event.

"Additionally, while investigating a Grade 1 gas leak in Lawrence on Sept. 27, 2019, the DPU discovered that, during the restoration efforts, Columbia Gas failed to follow required procedures ... . If the company had followed those procedures ... the subsequent Grade 1 gas leak, service shutoffs, and forced evacuations" would have been avoided.

In particular, the company had failed to remove "gate-boxes," which enable workers on the street to gain access to gas valves. On Sept. 27, a company doing work on water valves mistakenly turned a gas valve in one of the gate-boxes. That resulted in a plastic high-pressure gas line that had been inserted into the old cast-iron gas line being perforated and releasing gas and causing a mass evacuation.

Nelson noted that the DPU's concerns "are significant, and have led to the opening of multiple new investigations." 

As a result, he said, "unless the Department explicitly approves specific requests to complete other work, Columbia Gas shall perform only emergency work on its gas distribution system throughout its service territories," which includes regions around Lawrence, Springfield and Brockton.

 'Lost sense of security'

Joe Hamrock, chief executive officer of NiSource, Inc., the parent company of Columbia Gas, agreed with the edict.

“To ensure our customers can feel safe in their homes and businesses, we will be ceasing non-emergency work in Massachusetts effective immediately," he said in a statement issued Thursday night. "We agree with the Department of Public Utilities that this is the appropriate and responsible course of action. We recognize many have lost their sense of security and we take responsibility for that.

"While we have taken significant safety steps over the past year, we fully understand that restoring and maintaining the trust and confidence of all our customers and officials will be a continuing process. We will continue to work closely with the DPU and government partners on our shared priority of enhancing safety for our customers and our communities.”

Even though the company is not permitted to conduct routine work, including signing up new customers, it is allowed to continue emergency work to repair ongoing problems with the new system.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said he was pleased with the DPU's order.

“I applaud the DPU's actions today.” Rivera said. “This moratorium is exactly what we need until Columbia Gas can show us they can walk and chew gum at the same time, when it comes to the safety of the community and running the utility.”

The agency earlier this week ordered the utility to complete a number of new safety measures, including submitting by Monday a plan to address 2,220 old service lines abandoned during its systemwide pipeline upgrade in Lawrence.

It said Columbia Gas will be fined up to $1 million per violation if the orders aren’t carried out.

DPU warning

While the cause of last week's leak seemed to take everyone by surprise, the fact that it happened did not. Just weeks earlier, the DPU had sent out a letter warning the gas company to check more than 700 abandoned gas lines to ensure they weren't active and didn't represent a danger to homes or businesses with new gas service.

On Sept. 11, the Department of Public Utilities said there were 713 abandoned gas service lines at homes and businesses throughout the region as a result of work that was done in the wake of the Sept. 13, 2018 gas disaster. The concern was that they may have still been attached to active gas mains in the street.

According to a Department of Public Utilities official, as part of the rebuilding effort, gas meters that had been inside homes were moved outside. The old pipes leading to the interior of the building were abandoned and were supposed to have been either removed, or capped and disconnected from the gas main in the street.

DPU officials ordered Columbia Gas to go back and make sure that all those abandoned lines in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, have been taken care of and made safe for residents.

Mixed results

According to an update provided Thursday by Columbia Gas to area communities, the work is ongoing and the findings have been mixed.

In Lawrence, it was determined that there were 417 abandoned gas lines leading into homes and businesses. Of those, 151 were found to have been disconnected from the abandoned main in the street. However, 46 were found to not be disconnected. Some 25 still need to be checked, according to the gas company.

In Andover, 176 lines had been abandoned, with 77 having been disconnected and 10 that were not disconnected. Another 16 remain to be checked.

In North Andover, meanwhile, 120 abandoned lines were discovered, 42 had been disconnected from the main in the street, eight have not been disconnected and seven still need to be checked.

According to Columbia Gas, if an inspection team finds a service line has not been disconnected from the abandoned main, they plug and cap the service line inside the foundation, perform a leak survey and initiate a Dig Safe protocol to have the pipe removed or disabled within seven days.

For those services where "further verification" is needed, Columbia Gas explained that if they couldn't figure out whether the service line had been been disconnected, even after using cameras from inside the house, they would have to dig up the service line, following notification of Dig-Safe.

Valves found

According to Lawrence Mayor Rivera, the valve problem that caused the Sept. 27 gas leak doesn't appear to be as widespread as the overall abandoned gas lines problem. 

He said two valves were found in Lawrence that needed to be disabled, including the one discovered by the water contractor. The other one has been "remediated," as the gas company calls it, meaning the surface plate is removed, the valve disabled and the hole filled with some kind of material so it can't be accessed from street level. Then the hole is covered with asphalt.

There were six, similar valves identified in Andover, according to Town Manager Andrew Flanagan, all of which have been "decommissioned and filled with cement. This was followed up and confirmed with a site walk."

He said the town is particularly concerned about this situation because of ongoing water system work in town.

"We will continue to work with them as we proceed with our water work," he said. "We are obviously concerned with the recent leak and the identification of abandoned lines."  

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