LAWRENCE — The state Department of Public Utilities came out swinging Tuesday, hammering Columbia Gas for breaking federal law in one letter and then threatening to fine them $1 million for every violation listed in another letter – both of which were issued as a result of last Friday's Level 1 gas leak.
Last week's leak forced the evacuation of dozens of homes and businesses in the same South Lawrence neighborhood devastated by last year's gas disaster. Hundreds of people were displaced and forced to seek reimbursement for lost food, wages and more.
In the first letter, issued Tuesday morning, DPU Chairman Matthew Nelson told Columbia Gas President Mark Kempic that the utility company must submit a "detailed work plan" describing how it intends to prevent future gas leaks like the one that occurred around 3 a.m. Friday.
In that incident, a contractor testing water meters for the city -- M.E. Simpson Co. Inc. of Valparaiso, Indiana -- mistook a gas valve for a water valve. When they turned it to test it, called "exercising," the gas valve punctured a high-pressure, plastic gas line that had been inserted into the old cast iron gas line as part of the system rebuild approved by local, state and federal authorities.
When the high-pressure line was broken, it released gas into the surrounding area, including the sewer system. A police officer on-scene noticed gas hissing out of a manhole cover and was overcome with the smell of natural gas so he called in the Fire Department, which was soon joined by officials from the gas company and the state.
Roads were shut off, residents evacuated, and businesses closed. Some people couldn't return to the neighborhood until Saturday night.
During the day Saturday, a statement issued by Columbia Gas and the city seemed to indicate that the two entities were taking joint responsibility for the break, with the city admitting that its contractor mistook a gas line for a water line while the gas company admitting it failed to remove a gas valve that was no longer being used.
Mayor Dan Rivera, however, said Monday that the gas company was completely at fault for having left the old valve accessible to the water contractor. He said the valve was mislabeled as a water meter and that maps used by the contractor listed the valve as being part of the water system.
A Columbia Gas spokesman, however, said updated maps used by the company accurately portrayed the locations of all utility lines in the city, even showing a water line nearby.
The DPU seems to have agreed with the mayor, however, saying that Columbia Gas had failed on several occasions to inspect and/or remove old gas valves and lines that had been abandoned.
"As you know, I issued my 11th set of orders issued on Sept. 11, 2019 to address concerns with 'abandoned services' that Bay State Gas took out of service during the restoration efforts following the Sept. 13, 2018 gas line event," wrote Matthew Nelson, chairman of the state DPU.
"Those restoration efforts involved, among other things, abandoning 4,900 existing service lines and replacing them with new services that currently provide gas to customers," he wrote. "Recent inspections have confirmed that much of the work performed on these abandoned services failed to comply with applicable Massachusetts and federal law.
"While the abandoned services are not active and may not immediately affect customers’ gas service, Columbia Gas has indicated that the existence of gas leaks in or near the replaced lines could pose safety concerns, and that a Grade 1 gas leak would significantly increase those concerns."
He noted that on Friday, Sept. 27, that's exactly what happened, when a gas leak was discovered in Lawrence around 3 a.m.
"A Grade 1 leak is a leak that represents an existing or probable hazard to persons or property, and requires immediate and continuous action until the conditions are no longer hazardous," he said in the letter. "I am aware that Columbia Gas, under the department’s supervision, took immediate action to identify and eliminate the source of the Grade 1 leak. The Department continues to work with Columbia Gas to take additional actions needed to ensure that similar incidents near abandoned gas valves will not occur."
Nonetheless, Nelson ordered that Columbia Gas take three, major steps to make sure that no more gas leaks occur under its watch and that if it fails in any of these steps, it would be facing a $1 million fine for each infraction.
First, he said, the company must, by Oct. 7, "submit a detailed work plan to the DPU describing how it intends to address the estimated 2,200 locations" where meters were moved "as part of the abandoned service work completed during the Merrimack Valley restoration."
By Oct. 18, Columbia Gas "shall complete quality control work on abandoned services where the insertion technique was used (covering approximately 713 homes) to assure that the work it performed on these abandoned services as part of the Merrimack Valley restoration is in compliance with Massachusetts and federal law. The Department expects that this work will be completed at a rate of about 50 homes inspected and remediated per day."
Finally, Columbia Gas "shall pay for a third-party independent audit, to be contracted through the Department, of all gas pipeline work completed as part of the Merrimack Valley restoration effort. Such audit will evaluate compliance with Massachusetts and federal law, as well as any other operational or safety risks that may be posed by the pipeline work."
The second letter came out after 5 p.m. Tuesday, citing the company for failing to comply with its own regulations, and thus federal regulations, by not properly disabling a gas valve that was still attached to a low-pressure cast-iron gas line that no longer carried gas, but did have a new, high-pressure gas line inserted into it.
Columbia Gas did not return several requests for comment Tuesday.
According to Justin Evans, Public Utilities Engineer, Pipeline Safety Division for the DPU, chastised Columbia Gas for failing to abandon the gas main based on its procedures.
"The valve from the abandoned main, located at the intersection of South Broadway and Salem Street, could only be exercised because Columbia Gas did not abandon the main as required by the company’s procedures, which state, 'When a distribution main is to be abandoned, valve boxes associated with the abandoned main (if they exist) shall be removed and the hole filled with a suitable compacting material. If the valve boxes cannot be removed due to their location in concrete or pavement, the valve box lids shall be removed and the valve boxes filled with concrete or other suitable material.'"
As a result, Evans said, the company also broke federal law.
“Each operator shall prepare and follow for each pipeline a manual of written procedures for conducting operations and maintenance activities and for emergency response," he said. "Based on current information, Columbia Gas failed to follow its own procedures abandoning the valve box and, therefore, Columbia Gas violated federal pipeline safety regulations."