BOSTON — Following the Merrimack Valley gas disaster, Gov. Charlie Baker and state lawmakers quickly pushed through legislation requiring licensed engineers to review plans for work on natural gas pipes.

The law, signed by Baker in December, was a response to one of five recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board in a preliminary report on how the Sept. 13, 2018, gas disaster happened in the Merrimack Valley.

Massachusetts is now an exception. A majority of other states don't require certified engineers to sign off on work plans, according to trade groups, which say the lack of oversight puts the public at risk.

David Cox, CEO of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, said while rules vary, about two-thirds of the states have exemptions on the books so that licensed engineers are not required to sign off on utility projects.

He said the exemptions are the work of industry lobbyists.

"Instead of attacking the system of professional licensure, these groups worked through the legislatures to carve out exemptions for their particular areas, arguing that the public is protected by federal rules," he said. "Over the decades these exemptions have stayed on the books."

Some federal agencies also have exemptions for their work, he said.

In its report, the NTSB said a professional engineer looking at plans for gas pipe work in South Lawrence could have potentially spotted critical oversights and prevented the disaster that killed a teenager, injured dozens and damaged more than 100 homes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.

The new law requires gas companies to get their plans approved by a state certified engineer.

'A LOT OF OPPOSTION'

Massachusetts is one of only two states that have eliminated licensure exemptions in recent years, Cox said. The other is New York.

New Hampshire does not have such an exemption, according to a 2016 survey by the National Society of Professional Engineers.

Cox said efforts by trade groups to lift the engineering exemptions have been stymied by a movement supporting state-level industrial regulations.

"That makes it even more difficult to get these exemptions removed," he said. "There's a lot of opposition."

Cox says numerous high-profile disasters can be attributed, in part, to a failure to rely on licensed engineers — including the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion, the 2010 Deep Water Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, and the 2015 Animas River disaster, where the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released millions of gallons of mine waste into the river.

"All of those disasters involved an engineer's judgement being overruled," he said. "It's sad that it takes a loss of life to remind people why licensure is important."

The NTSB report on the Merrimack Valley gas disaster made additional safety recommendations, including more review of gas line work plans, risk assessments and better oversight of job sites to prevent similar disasters.

Baker also hired a private consulting firm, Dynamic Risk Assessment Systems, Inc., to review the state’s gas distribution systems.

The consultant's preliminary report, released in April, suggested that regulators study the "safety value and benefits" of the new engineering requirement to determine its effectiveness.

"It is plausible that alternative approaches would better accomplish the intended objectives of this legislation," the report's authors wrote. "For instance, while a professional engineer provides certain qualifications, it’s important to recognize that PEs are licensed in fields of expertise that are more general, and not necessarily specialized in gas pipelines."

A final report is due by the end of the year.

More oversight

While the final regulations on certified engineers in Massachusetts haven't been released, DPU is requiring gas companies to use engineers on gas projects in the interim.

Its order includes work on the design and construction of interstate gas lines, new compressor stations, work on regulators stations and distribution pipelines. Emergency work, however, is exempted from the interim requirements.

Gas safety experts say lifting the state's exemption on engineer reviews is a step in the right direction, but more oversight is necessary.

"Back in the day, the gas companies used to have what they called a pressure group watching the contractors to make sure they were doing everything right," said Robert Ackley, a gas leak specialist and president of the Southborough company Gas Safety USA. "But they don't seem to do that anymore. We need more oversight of these projects."

Even the National Society of Professional Engineers, which also supports lifting the exemptions, notes that requiring engineers to review work plans isn't a panacea.

"It’s unrealistic to think any action will prevent accidents 100% of the time," Stephanie Hamilton, manager of government relations and advocacy for the trade group, wrote in a recent blog post. "Licensed or not, people are people, and mistakes will happen. Additionally, even without human error, accidents will still happen. Licensure won’t fix that."

"But by setting a minimum standard of qualifications, and providing a mechanism for accountability,” she added, “licensure provides the best chance for safety."

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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