Last fall’s gas disaster reverberated not just physically in the Merrimack Valley but throughout government. Leaders who visited the region in the days and weeks after the disaster vowed stricter regulation of utilities, in addition to help for people affected by explosions, fires and a prolonged natural gas outage.
Some of that has occurred. For example, the state tightened rules so licensed engineers must sign off and “seal” plans for utility work before it’s done, rather than leaving the review to people with engineering backgrounds who are uncertified.
There’s still much to do, however, if we’re to have any assurance that the events of last Sept. 13 won’t happen again.
Importantly, the state still must require natural gas utilities to assign someone to monitor pressure during pipeline work. That person can shut down the system in case of calamity — a point raised by the National Transportation Safety Board in an early review of the disaster. There was no such person overseeing the street work in Lawrence on Sept. 13 that caused this havoc. As we have learned since then, Columbia Gas stopped assigning those people to its work sites a couple of years earlier.
Neither of those requirements should be unique to Massachusetts. That standard of engineering review should extend to other states, as well, and so should the expectation that someone be on site monitoring the work. This region isn't alone, after all, in experiencing the impact of a surge of natural gas pressure. Similar incidents have happened elsewhere — including in Woburn, albeit to a far lesser extent, last October.
Congress has a golden opportunity to confront all of these issues as it takes up the reauthorization of the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act. At a committee hearing on Capitol Hill earlier this week, our region’s members of Congress, Reps. Lori Trahan and Seth Moulton, delivered that message to their colleagues.
Reading from written statements, Trahan and Moulton described the surreal events that unfolded that Thursday afternoon in the Merrimack Valley last fall, as well as the human tragedy and loss that ensued. Moulton, a Marine Corps veteran, likened it to the “carnage” he saw in Iraq.
The Merrimack Valley's experience should focus the attention of Congress. Now is the time to act to prevent similar disasters in the future.