Who knows what life Leonel Rondon might have lived?
At age 18, he attended Phoenix Charter Academy in Lawrence, a school whose students don’t always fit into a public school environment. Still, he was intellectually stimulated: He loved science, particularly biology, and math. His ambition to finish and get his diploma, according to teachers, inspired students around him.
He liked to dance with his niece and take his little brother to the movies. His favorite meal, his sister later told a U.S. Senate panel, was his mother’s shrimp and fried plantains, or tostones.
He’d just gotten his driver’s license on Sept. 13 and was hanging out with some friends, according to a story so widely recalled that it has become part of the lore of the Merrimack Valley natural gas disaster. He'd pulled his RAV4 into the driveway of 35 Chickering Road in Lawrence when the house exploded, its chimney tumbling down onto the compact SUV that Rondon was driving. Rondon was pinned. His friends could escape, but he could not.
In the chaos that swept over the region that day, Rondon’s life was the only one lost. That fact is remarkable given the scope of the disaster, but it makes his death no less tragic.
“We will not have the joy of seeing the wonderful man we know he would have become,” his sister, Lucianny, testified at a hearing more than a month later. “I stand in front of you in his honor. I will never have my brother back. But we hope there will be justice for him and the community.”
That hope for justice was given life this week with a bill announced by U.S. Sen. Edward Markey tightening rules on natural gas utilities across the country. Rep. Lori Trahan, the Merrimack Valley’s representative in Congress, is expected to file a companion bill in the U.S. House.
The legislation address some of the major points raised by regulators from the National Transportation Safety Board after an early assessment of the disaster: It requires that professional engineers certify plans to rebuild or rehab the natural gas system — a requirement the state of Massachusetts has already implemented. It forces utilities to assign someone to monitor gas pressure at the job site and be ready to shut down the system if necessary — an idea also proposed in our state Legislature.
Those are just two points of a sweeping reform. Markey’s bill would force utilities to be more realistic about the potential for disaster involving old, cast iron infrastructure, and plan accordingly. It would require emergency plans already filed by utilities to include communication protocols between utilities, first responders, local leaders and the public.
It forces utilities to create procedures for these specific types of disasters — when alarms go off when networks are suddenly overcome by a surge of high-pressure gas. It would require utilities to keep up-to-date information about their infrastructure. Also, to focus the attention of energy executives, it ratchets up fines for those who violate those safety measures by 100 times. New fines would range from $20 million to $200 million.
“Without strengthening safety regulations, America’s natural gas pipeline infrastructure remains a ticking time bomb,” Markey said in a statement Monday announcing the bill, which he named the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act. Markey, a Democrat, promised prompt hearings that will “blow the lid off of the lack of public safety procedures in place” throughout the country.
Preventing what happened in the Merrimack Valley last Sept. 13 from happening again — here in our region or anyplace else, for that matter — should be a top priority of state lawmakers as well as our representatives in Congress. It’s encouraging to see so many months of anguish and anxiety lead to something productive. Here’s hoping Markey's legislation gets swift attention and consideration.
It’s also gratifying to see utilities held accountable. As Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said at a press conference on Monday at Ladder 4 in South Lawrence, a station in the thick of last fall's disaster, “Bringing their feet to the fire has been very important to us. They would have walked away from us a lot of times. Now they are forced to be at the table.”
Just as significant is the memorial to a life not lived, the tribute to the unfulfilled promise and potential of a Lawrence boy who died that Thursday afternoon nearly seven months ago. Now, the memory of Leonel Rondon goes on.
“Fifty years from now when they talk about pipeline safety,” said Rivera, “they’re going to remember his name.”