BOSTON — One year after gas fires and explosions ripped through the Merrimack Valley, lawmakers are still pushing to require gas utilities to assign experienced technicians to monitor gas pressure in the lines during work.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, filed the proposal in January in response to the Sept. 13, 2018, disaster that killed a teen, injured dozens and damaged more than 130 homes in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence.

The proposal, if approved by the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker, would require the state Department of Public Utilities to come up with regulations to require monitors on job sites.

But the legislation, which has nearly two dozen co-sponsors, is languishing in a committee. Tarr also sought to add the proposal to the $43 billion state budget this summer, but the measure didn't make it into the final spending package.

"Frankly, this is something that should be required at every job site," he said. "Unfortunately, we've seen what can happen when the natural gas pressure isn't properly monitored."

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is still investigating last year's disaster, recommended better oversight and monitoring of job sites to prevent similar events.

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, the utility company responsible for the disaster, previously required technicians to monitor major gas line jobs. The company did away with the practice several years ago without explanation, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The agency said a monitor potentially could have spotted critical oversights and prevented the devastation that unfolded, and the long recovery that continues, in the Merrimack Valley.

STEPS BEING TAKEN

Mark Kempic, Columbia Gas’ president, said the utility has taken a number of steps to improve safety since the disaster, including updated policies for pipeline replacement, requiring qualified personnel to be on site and in charge of operations and to monitor pressure while work is being performed and for at least 30 minutes afterward. 

"We're taking a multi-faceted approach to safety," he said in a recent interview. "We want to make sure we're not just putting out a fire, but that no fire starts in the future."

The company is also in the process of installing automatic pressure control devices — called "slam-shut devices" — on low-pressure systems across the seven states in which it operates, he said.

The gas network affected by the Merrimack Valley disaster was a low-pressure system. The NTSB said over-pressurized lines were the source of the explosions and fires.

Tarr, who has been invited by Columbia Gas to view one of the slam-shut devices, points out that regulators cited a lack of human intervention as one of the causes of the disaster.

"Technology is important, but we also need to make sure there are qualified personnel monitoring the situation so if the technology fails there's still a safeguard," he said.

To be sure, the Baker administration also has taken steps to ensure the safety of the state's gas pipelines, including hiring a private consultant to review the systems.

Baker signed a bill in December requiring gas projects be reviewed by a certified professional engineer — also a recommendation from federal regulators. At the time of the gas fires, Massachusetts was one of 30 states that exempted public utilities from having a licensed engineer review plans for construction work.

The Department of Public Utilities' pipeline safety division now has 13 certified inspectors and is in the process of hiring additional engineers to review construction plans. There were only two DPU inspectors for the entire state when the gas disaster occurred. 

ROOM TO IMPROVE

Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, said he believes overall pipeline safety has gotten better in the past year but that there's still plenty of room for improvement.

"We've made progress but there's still more work to do on fixing gas leaks and expediting new pipes going in," he said. "That's something we have to continue to push further on."

Finegold, a member of the Legislature's Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy that has oversight of the industry, has also filed legislation to require monitors on job sites, as well as other regulations aimed at improving gas safety. That proposal hasn't had a hearing either.

Finegold said he is confident that the Legislature will take up his proposal. 

Gas safety experts say utilities in Massachusetts are still compromising safety by turning to outside contractors for pipeline work, while cutting back on staff to oversee projects. 

Robert Ackley, a gas leak specialist and president of the Southborough firm Gas Safety USA, said the industry is still largely allowed to self-regulate.

"These companies are basically operating the same as before," he said. "They may be under the microscope more, but there's been little improvement on safety." 

In Congress, Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Lori Trahan have filed legislation that would require on-site monitoring of pressure regulation stations during work on gas pipes so that employees can quickly shut off gas flow in an emergency. The bill, named after Leonel Rondon, the Lawrence teen killed in the disaster, would also require other safety features to help avoid over-pressurizations.

Union officials say state and federal safety regulations for the entire natural gas industry need to be further tightened.

"These companies need as much oversight as possible, whether it's in-house or from state inspectors," said John Buonopane, president of United Steel Workers Local 12012, which represents National Grid gas workers. "It's always a good thing to have another set of eyes watching what's going on. If gas is handled properly, it's a safe product."

Lawmakers who represent the region agree there needs to be more oversight of gas work and inspections, both from utilities and the state.

"We should have inspectors at every job site," said Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-West Newbury, a member of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. "Not only should a supervisor have the ability to shut down a gas job, but every worker on site should be able to hit the stop button if they see something wrong."

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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