Effects of the Merrimack Valley’s gas disaster linger, large and small. Some people are still putting their lives back together. For others, the residuals are emotional and psychological.
Something else held over — maddeningly so — are plans to make natural gas work safer. On Beacon Hill, Sen. Bruce Tarr filed a bill back in January to require utilities to assign monitors to job sites. These individuals would watch over the work and be able to quickly shut off service — a check against the rapid ratcheting of gas pressure that unleashed last fall’s swarm of fires and explosions.
On the House side, Rep. Barry Finegold filed a similar bill. But, as Statehouse reporter Christian Wade chronicled this past week, both proposals are stuck in committee. Tarr tried jump-starting his by hooking it to the state’s $43 billion budget. The gambit didn’t work.
Finegold told Wade he’s confident his plan will get a hearing. A full year after the gas disaster, and months after these bills were filed, one could be forgiven being skeptical. A year after the disaster, it’s well past time for action.
Beacon Hill isn’t the only muddy place where these plans were bogged down. Capitol Hill is another. Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Lori Trahan filed legislation in Congress to require onsite monitoring of gas work, naming the bill after Leonel Rondon, the 18-year-old killed in South Lawrence last Sept. 13. He was the gas disaster’s only fatality.
Their plans haven’t moved either. Their legislation would go a step further, requiring professional engineers to scrutinize plans for gas line work. Massachusetts enacted that rule in response to a preliminary report on the gas disaster by the National Transportation Safety Board. As Wade reported, however, many other states still exempt utilities from that level of oversight. Public safety in those places, one expert told him, is compromised as a result.
“Congress has no greater responsibility to the American people than to provide for their safety and security,” Trahan, the Merrimack Valley’s representative in Congress, wrote in a column published in The Eagle-Tribune on the anniversary of the gas disaster. “When that security is threatened, we have a responsibility to act and to protect.”
Now, it seems, Congress and our representatives on Beacon Hill are not living up to their responsibility.
Gas company executives will tell you pipelines are safer today than they were Sept. 13, 2018. Columbia Gas, which dropped the practice of assigning monitors to gas construction sites several years before the disaster — a whistleblower has said it was a cost-saving measure — now requires personnel at the scene of work to monitor pressure, the company has said. Columbia Gas also is installing methane’s answer to the electrical circuit breaker, called a “slam shut device,” throughout its network of older, low-pressure gas lines.
Whether those are sufficient safety devices, especially during pipeline repair and replacement, remains to be seen. With no public hearings, how could lawmakers or the public assess their value?
It should be lost on no one that just two months after the gas disaster, the NTSB issued urgent recommendations including one that called for continuous monitoring of pressure during gas work, along with “assets” in place to immediately shut things down in case of an emergency.
The safety board is scheduled to revisit the issue Sept. 24, when it formally determines the probable cause of the disaster that killed Rondon, injured 22 others, and caused upwards of $1.6 billion in expense.
Such controls on gas utility work should not be left to the recommendations of the NTSB. They should be codified in law. That Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill have waited this long is beyond irresponsible. It is a dereliction of duty.