WASHINGTON, D.C. — Representatives from NiSource, the parent company of Columbia Gas, said their understanding of what happened during the Merrimack Valley gas disaster "aligns" with what federal regulators said Tuesday morning in the nation's capital. 

The National Transportation Safety Board said the company was not prepared to handle such a disaster Sept. 13, 2018, and had no maps of the gas system available for first responders, despite overseeing the system for 100 years. Additionally, the NTSB reported, company officials were difficult to reach as the disaster was occurring and for hours afterward. 

The NTSB also said plans to upgrade the cast-iron gas line system did not include upgrades to "gas sensing lines." 

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said "results were not simply unacceptable. For a whole region, they were catastrophic." 

Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence was killed during the disaster. Three firefighters and 19 civilians were hurt, 50,000 people were forced to evacuate and the severity of the damage depended on the age of appliances people had. 

Over-pressurization of the gas system is blamed for the disaster.

"As we’ve said since that tragic day, we take responsibility for what happened," NiSource officials said in a statement released early Tuesday afternoon, about two hours after the NTSB meeting concluded. 

“The NTSB’s work is an important step in the effort to enhance pipeline safety. Our own understanding of the events generally aligns with that of the NTSB. We welcome today’s action by the NTSB because it will help us, our industry partners, the public, and others learn from this tragedy," the statement continued. 

“Since last September, and based on lessons learned, we have taken a series of steps to prevent something similar from happening again, which is what our customers and our communities deserve. These include installing automatic shut-off devices, accelerating implementation of a Safety Management System, or SMS, enhancing emergency preparedness, enhanced mapping, and more," according to the statement. 

The company said it has "cooperated fully" with the NTSB. 

“We have committed to our customers and our communities that we will continue to learn from what happened and implement changes to protect the public. ... We will continue to work with all stakeholders to help prevent something similar from happening again, in our system or anywhere," according to the NiSource statement.

Politicians react

Immediately after the meeting, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, said the NTSB investigation provides "two important things that Merrimack Valley residents and the Rondon family richly deserve: a thorough explanation of what went wrong, as well as concrete steps to keep a similar catastrophe from ever happening again."

"NiSource’s reckless actions and our loophole-ridden pipeline safety regulations led to death and disaster, with gas pressures reaching between 100 to 150 times higher than they should have been in that system. The NTSB final report confirms what Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and I found during our investigation – that this disaster was not inevitable, it was preventable," Markey wrote in a statement. 

“No pipeline company should ever be allowed to cut corners on safety in order to cut down on costs, and no safety regulator should be allowed to look the other way when it comes to ensuring the pipelines traveling between our homes, schools, and businesses are safe," he said. 

At Markey's request, the NTSB will come to Lawrence in early October "where they will be discussing their findings directly with those in the affected communities" of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.  

The meeting, held in Washington, D.C., was webcast and viewed by officials in the Merrimack Valley, including Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera.

"For the first time we are seeing the whole picture of disorganization and lack of attention to detail," said Rivera, after the NTSB took a meeting break at 11 a.m

"It wasn't just one thing that happened. It was a whole orchestra of failures across the project," he continued.

Rivera said he was struck by the fact no map of the gas delivery system was available that afternoon when the disaster erupted around 4 p.m.  

"Somebody should have access to that," Rivera said. 

Feeney Brothers, the contractor working on South Union Street in Lawrence on the gas pipeline that day, is not blamed for any wrongdoing and was praised by NTSB lead investigator Roger Evans who asked to give the company a "shout-out" during the meeting. 

More findings

Other matters discussed during the meeting Tuesday morning:

- The gas disaster occurred as Columbia Gas had a project underway to modernize the system. The project started in 2015 but faced delays, including a shutdown in 2016 by Rivera. 

- Columbia Gas had no plans to relocate "gas sensing lines" in the project plans. 

- A 1977 accident in El Paso, Texas, was nearly identical to the Merrimack Valley gas disaster.

- On the day of the disaster, 184 fire departments from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine responded to the Merrimack Valley bringing 167 fire engines, 65 ladder trucks and 54 ambulances. One thousand police officers came to the area. 

- Cast iron gas lines, which are considered outdated, are located throughout the U.S. However, 19 states have phased out the use of such lines. 

This is a developing story. Check back to eagletribune.com for updates.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.  








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