LAWRENCE — Mayor Dan Rivera and Columbia Gas are at odds over who was responsible for the gas main break Friday as well as several other details surrounding the incident.
The mayor places full blame on the utility company.
“They’re at fault,” Rivera said.
Scott Ferson, a spokesman for Columbia Gas, said the two are taking “joint responsibility.”
He referred to a release sent Saturday by Gov. Charlie Baker’s office that was labeled a “joint statement” from the city and the gas company:
“Early Friday morning while conducting a routine check of water valves in preparation of road paving, contractors working for the city of Lawrence inadvertently closed a gas valve, puncturing an active gas main,” said the statement from the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. “Preliminarily, it appears that this gas valve should have been disabled as part of pipeline reconstruction in 2018 and was not compliant with DPU standards.”
The gas main break, labeled a Level 1 break — the most severe — forced the evacuation of hundreds of sleeping residents about 4 a.m. Friday. Dozens of businesses were closed. Many people couldn’t get back into their homes or get to work or their businesses until Sunday.
It was an incident made all the more difficult because people in the area are just now beginning to get over the devastating impact of the gas explosions Sept. 13, 2018, that left one person dead and thousands homeless and unable to make a living while their businesses were shut down for months.
Rivera claims that Columbia Gas was supposed to have removed all the old gas valves attached to cast-iron lines that had PVC gas lines inserted into them, but the company neglected to remove two of the obsolete valves — including the one that caused the break Friday and another one that was found nearby and removed over the weekend.
Rivera said two more have been found and removed in Andover and North Andover.
Ferson said Monday that the company agreed with part of what Rivera said, but not all of it.
“The natural gas valve box should have been dismantled,” he admitted. “But the city acknowledged it was the water contractor who misread the map — mistaking the gas line for a water line.”
Rivera disputed that claim.
“All they did was turn one of the valves,” Rivera said, referring to the water contractor. “A valve was turned. Someone gave them a map, go check all these valves, and that was on the water valves list.”
About 3 a.m., Lawrence police Patrolman Claudio Camacho was working for a private contractor doing work for the city’s Water Department, checking on business and residential water meters as part of routine maintenance. The name of the company has not been released by the city.
The crew was working at night, Rivera said, because it didn’t want to disturb traffic during the day at the busy intersection of Salem Street and South Broadway.
According to the mayor, “the water contractor did what we asked them to do. We told them to check every water valve.” He said that to date, some 1,400 water valves have been inspected.
On Friday morning, the contractor apparently mistook a gas valve for a water valve. The contractor turned it off, Rivera said, cracking open the PVC gas line inserted into the old pipe.
That led to a release of high-pressure gas, which worked its way into the old gas line as well as into surrounding sewer mains.
Camacho heard hissing coming from a sewer manhole cover near where he was standing and he was overwhelmed by the smell of natural gas.
Rivera said “in a normal environment, all they (water contractor employees) would have done was shut off the gas, then turn it back on.” But in this case, the gas valve actually sliced into the newly inserted gas main, releasing the gas.
Ferson said he doesn’t know where the water contractor got its maps, noting that the gas company’s maps have all been updated with the specific locations of every pipe and valve.
“Our maps are clear,” he said. “Our maps know precisely where the gas lines are. The water line was adjacent to it. Whatever map they were looking at wasn’t correct because it was a gas line.”
Rivera said the water contractor was further confused by labeling.
“We did have a contractor, turning valves,” he said. “They were checking all the valves in our water system. ... but that doesn’t matter. The valve should never have been there. They thought it was a water valve. It was mislabeled as a water valve.”
In that neighborhood, round, heavy, metal plates designating water valves or gas valves are prominently labeled either “Gas” or “Water” across the middle.
Many of them are spray-painted different colors as well. At one intersection, the gas plates are spray-painted yellow/orange while the water plates are spray-painted blue.
Rivera said that aside from the labeling, the “plates,” as they are called, look similar.
“They thought the gas plate was the water plate,” Rivera said. “It all looks the same.”