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CARL RUSSO/staff photo. A gas explosion destroyed this house on 39 Chickering Rd. in Lawrence killing Leonel Rondon, 18 when the chimney fell on the car he was in late Thursday afternoon. Dozens of houses in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover caught fire from natural gas explosions. 9/13/2018

BOSTON — The partial shutdown of the federal government has put the brakes on the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into the Merrimack Valley gas disaster.

With the impasse over funding for a wall on the Mexican border entering its third week, hundreds of thousands of federal workers have been furloughed or are working without pay, as funding to run agencies has dried up. That includes investigators and other employees at the NTSB, which probes natural gas explosions as well as transportation accidents.

The lapse of funding means the agency with more than 450 employees has been reduced to a skeleton staff of mostly department heads, with ongoing investigations suspended.

Sen. Ed Markey has called on President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans to support legislation to reopen the government, calling it crucial to the investigation.

"We need to fund government and provide the NTSB the resources it needs to complete its investigation and compile a comprehensive account of the safety lapses that led to the deadly disaster in Merrimack Valley," the Democrat said in a statement. "Without the results of this investigation, the people of this community cannot hope to move forward."

An NTSB spokesperson couldn't be reached for comment. A message on the agency's press office voicemail explains that communication employees have been furloughed as well.

"You are welcome to leave a voicemail, however, no one will be able to respond to your inquiry until after the shutdown has ended," the message said.

During a 16-day partial government shutdown in 2013, the NTSB reported 383 of its 405 employees were furloughed. Dozens of ongoing investigations were delayed.

Peter Goelz, a former NTSB managing director, said the shutdown means the agency won't be conducting investigations like its inquiry into the Merrimack Valley disaster.

"The shutdown is going to seriously affect major investigations like this, which is inexcusable," said Goelz, a senior vice president at the Washington D.C. offices of O’Neill and Associates, a private consulting firm. "There's nobody out in the field doing any work, and there's nobody in the labs doing any work. They've really been stopped cold."

He said that means Merrimack Valley residents and officials will have to wait even longer for a final report on the cause of the gas fires and explosions.

"It's all going to be pushed back," he said. "But more so, it will also delay the findings and recommendations meant to prevent this from happening again."

Goelz worked for the agency during a previous government shutdown, in the 1990s. He said it forced NTSB investigators to prioritize their work.

"They'll be focusing on major disasters, but smaller accidents won't be investigated," he said.

A preliminary NTSB report on the Sept. 13 gas system failure that killed a teenager and caused dozens of fires in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover found that utility workers contracted by Columbia Gas failed to account for critical pressure sensors as they replaced century-old cast-iron pipes in Lawrence.

The omission caused high-pressure gas to overwhelm the area's distribution system, causing more than 80 explosions and fires, the report noted.

The preliminary report made recommendations including hiring engineers to review gas line work plans, risk assessments and better oversight of job sites.

The next stage of the investigation was looking at coordination between emergency responders and Columbia Gas' engineering and construction plans.

Brendan Moss, a spokesman for Gov. Charlie Baker, said Friday "the administration believes Washington should put aside political differences and agree on a bipartisan solution that funds the federal government so that important work, like this NTSB investigation, can continue."

The state Department of Public Utilities, which is also investigating the disaster, has hired an independent firm to assess the safety of pipeline infrastructure throughout the state.

In Washington, the shutdown appeared no closer to resolution Friday, with President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats locked in a standoff over funding.

Trump wants $5 billion for the wall, telling reporters at a briefing he’ll keep the government closed for "months or years" to get money for border security.

Newly sworn-in members of the Democratic-led House of Representatives approved a measure to reopen the government without funding for the border wall. The legislation is considered dead on arrival in the Senate, and Trump has vowed to veto a bill without the money.

Some 800,000 federal employees -- out of a workforce of 2.1 million -- are in unpaid status due to the partial shutdown. Of those, about 380,000 have been furloughed.

Federal workers are exempted from furloughs if their jobs are national security-related or if they perform activities intended to "protect life and property."

State Sen. Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat, said concluding the NTSB investigation is critical to figuring out what went wrong "so that it doesn't happen again."

"We can't allow an important investigation like this to be hampered because someone can't agree on a budget," he said. "It's a big mistake, and I hope that Congress and the White House can figure this thing out and get the federal government working again."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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