Members of Congress Grill Utilities Over Natural Gas Explosions

Federal lawmakers slammed executives from Columbia Gas and its parent company, NiSource, for inadequate preparation and response to the gas explosions that rocked New England’s Merrimack Valley region in September. (Editor’s Note: See “Natural Gas Disaster Racks Massachusetts,” from last issue.) The comments were made at a rare field hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held November 26 at the South Lawrence Middle School. Representatives from NEFI and the Massachusetts Energy Marketers Association (MEMA) were in attendance.

The hearing opened with emotional testimony from Lucianny Rondon, sister of 18-year-old Lionel Rondon, who was killed in the explosions. “The grief we feel is unbearable,” she said. More than two-dozen other individuals were injured, an estimated 30,000 residents were forced to evacuate, and more than 100 structures were damaged or destroyed in three communities. More than 1,300 customers had no heat or hot water during the coldest autumn in 80 years, and more than 8,000 people celebrated Thanksgiving in hotels or trailer parks. The original deadline for reestablishing service to affected Columbia Gas customers was November 19. That self-imposed deadline was extended to December 16, but during the hearing utility officials could not guarantee lawmakers that everyone would have service restored by then either.

“Columbia Gas should be ashamed,” said Senator Ed Markey (D-MA.), who presided over the hearing. “At every step of the process there was a chance for NiSource and Columbia to avoid this disaster,” he said. This includes simple things, such as maintaining up-to-date maps of the gas system and installing automatic shut-off valves at key points that are ready to respond to any over-pressurization. Markey said these failures left “ticking time bombs” under the streets and in homes and businesses. “Instead of choosing safety you chose savings; instead of choosing action you chose to cut corners,” he said.

Answering a question from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Columbia Gas President Steve Bryant and NiSource CEO Joe Hamrock revealed they receive annual salaries of $550,000 and $5 million, respectively. When Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA03) questioned how costs of the disaster would be paid for, Hamrock suggested the utility may pass on the costs to gas customers. The total cost of the disaster could exceed $1 billion, according to experts. Sen. Markey and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA06) called on the two executives to resign.

The hearing also highlighted ongoing safety concerns. Thousands of miles of aging natural gas pipeline infrastructure snake across the Northeast, including 21,000 miles in Massachusetts alone. Rep. Moulton noted that 12 state inspectors (a full staff) are expected to be responsible for 1,750 miles of pipeline each, if divided evenly. That’s the entire distance between Boston, Massachusetts and Dallas, Texas.

Lawmakers and witnesses from the National Transportation Safety Board and U.S. Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration promised new legislation and regulatory reforms at the federal level to help prevent such disasters from occurring in the future. This is in addition to actions by state and local policymakers and the utilities themselves. “No one should live in fear that their home will explode,” Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) said.

Despite this, risks will always remain, and lawmakers expressed doubts about whether aging or obsolete pipelines can be replaced before another disaster occurs. Massachusetts Secretary of Energy & Environment Matthew Beaton said it could take 20 years or more to do so (likely a conservative estimate). Then, of course, there are questions as to the cost of replacing gas lines, and who will pay for it.

Senator Markey promised follow-up hearings would be held in the future. NEFI and Oil & Energy are following the debate closely and will keep readers up to date on the federal response to the Merrimack Valley Disaster, as well as the broader safety and environmental risks posed by natural gas.

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