Natural Gas Disaster Racks Massachusetts

As 48 miles of pipe now need to be replaced in the affected areas, road closures like this one are to be expected for some time.

By Samuel Diamond

“This is like Armageddon,” said a resident of North Andover.

“It was like a movie,” said another, of Lawrence.

Unfortunately, the natural gas fires and explosions that devastated the suburban Massachusetts communities of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover on the evening of Thursday, September 13 were not cinema. They were all too real.

While many questions remain unanswered, here is some of what we know so far. Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, the utility that provides natural gas service to the affected area, had announced early on September 13 that it would be upgrading gas lines in neighborhoods across the state, including Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. A message on the utility’s website told consumers, “This work will lead to long-term benefits for you including: enhanced safety features, reliability of service for years to come, less future maintenance work in your neighborhood, [and] system support for amenities like fire pits, outdoor grills, pools heaters.” Reportedly, the work also led to Columbia Gas over-pressurizing its lines, with pressure readings recorded at 6 pounds per square inch, 12 times higher than the normal .5 pounds per square inch.

Shortly after 4:00 p.m., a call came in about a basement fire in Lawrence. Minutes later, additional reports of strong gas odors and fires started pouring into call centers in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. (Though it should be noted that some claim they’d been complaining about the smells for weeks prior without their concerns being properly addressed.) Robocalls instructed people to turn off their gas lines, but many didn’t know how. At 4:26 p.m., the first house explosion was reported. Five minutes the later, the order went out across Lawrence Police radio channels: “All right, get every civilian out of this area. All the civilians — get them out of their houses. Let’s go!”

Government officials and first responders acted quickly. Homes and businesses were ordered to evacuate, as police officers, firefighters, and safety workers went door to door, responding to continuous reports of gas leaks, fires, and explosions. All told, as many as 80 separate fires or explosions occurred in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, causing at many as 25 reported injuries.

Most tragically, 18-year-old Lawrence resident Leonol Rondon was killed in the driveway of his friend’s house when the building exploded, sending its chimney crashing down on the car in which Rondon sat parked. The teen was in the driver seat, the precise point of impact. He’d received his license only hours earlier that same day.

The power was cut to 18,000 homes in Merrimack Valley. Several offramps along Interstate 495 were shut down to keep people out of the area, and some roads in Lawrence were also closed in order to allow responders to travel quickly from house to house. Countless residents were displaced before being told they could return home on the afternoon of Sunday September 16.

Still, considering the scope of the disaster, it’s likely that things would have been even worse were it not for the bravery and quick thinking of those on the scene. And yet, the worst of it may not be over.

Some 48 miles of gas pipeline now need to be replaced and approximately 8,600 gas meters remain offline pending inspections and possible replacements. Meanwhile, a cold New England winter looms as thousands of homes and small businesses are still without a permanent source of energy for heat, hot water and cooking. The danger is perhaps most apparent in Lawrence, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the state.


Officials Respond

Over the course of the evening of September 13, people throughout the nation were shocked by the news coming out of New England. However, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the prevailing emotions were sympathy for those impacted and outrage at what was widely regarded as an inadequate response from Columbia Gas.

Speaking from the home of Leonol Rondon’s family, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said, “This is about as immediate and enormous and gigantic demonstration of the force of a gas explosion I’ve ever stood next to.”

In the face of disaster, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, which serves some 320,000 customers throughout the state, seemed overwhelmed and unprepared to coordinate with emergency responders and public officials as needed. At a press conference held September 14, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera declared, “Since yesterday, when we first got word of the incident, the least informed and the last to act has been Columbia Gas.” Although Rivera acknowledged that the utility had advised communities to evacuate and cut off the electricity, he said, “Those are the last two coherent pieces of information we got from Columbia Gas. Everything since then has been obfuscation, and they have not met their mandate.”

As a result, Governor Baker signed a declaration of emergency for Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, allowing the state to turn over control of the restoration efforts to Eversource, New England’s largest utility provider. The company announced that day that it was sending 133 people, two emergency communications trailers and a mobile command unit to assist in the recovery.

Where Columbia Gas fell short with regards to coordination, other first responders stepped up to the plate. Photos and messages posted to social media throughout the evening and late-night hours of September 13 showed local police precincts working closely with town officials to update residents on the situation as it unfolded. The Massachusetts State Police also lent key resources, as its MSP Fusion Center kept a tally of fires, explosions and investigations of gas odors at sites throughout Lawrence and North Andover. Additionally, the American Red Cross of Massachusetts opened reception centers at Parthum Elementary School in Lawrence, North Andover High School and the Andover Cormier Youth Center. The next day, a staging area established at the Lawrence Senior Center was accepting volunteers and food donations.

On September 18, five days after the Merrimack Valley Disaster began, Columbia Gas announced it would donate $10 million to the Greater Lawrence Disaster Relief Fund and open two claims centers where impacted residents could submit claims to receive compensation for related “1) bodily injury; 2) damage to property; 3) disruption of businesses; 4) inconvenience and disruption of everyday activities caused by loss of use of gas service due to the event; 5) reasonable efforts to limit or mitigate the loss.”

In a possibly unprecedented development, Columbia Gas further stated that it would reimburse residential customers and businesses “for reasonable costs of permanently switching to an alternative fuel source (e.g. electric or oil) for appliances or systems that were fueled by natural gas prior to the outage.” The utility also offered reimbursements for temporary fuel-switching solutions “as well as the return to gas-fueled appliances and systems.”

Democratic Massachusetts State Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren called for the utility to go even further. “This is a good first step towards providing restitution and assistance to those who have been harmed by this disaster, but it is critical that Columbia Gas immediately commit whatever financial resources are necessary to ensure that every affected resident in the area has the resources they need to rebuild their lives now and is made economically whole,” the senators wrote.

It is worth noting here that as the largest gas-only local distribution company in Massachusetts, Columbia Gas has a rate base of approximately $792 million.


What Now?

As this issue went to print, the National Transportation Safety Bureau was in the process of investigating the disaster and the National Guard was distributing essential supplies to impacted residents, including 7,000 hot plates and 24,000 space heaters.

Fire officials warned, however, that these temporary solutions came with risks of their own and should be used with caution. “Between 2007 and 2016, we had 139 fires in the commonwealth that were associated directly to the use of space heaters,” said Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield. “They should be placed a minimum of three feet away from any drapery, furniture or combustible material. We ask that they not use an extension cord to power the space heaters.”

Several energy associations across the region — including the Massachusetts Energy Marketers Association (MEMA), NEFI, and others — had issued statements about the Merrimack Valley Disaster on the night it began and have continued to keep their members updated ever since. “NEFI members and supporters across New England and the broader Northeast are devastated by this tragedy,” said NEFI President & CEO Sean Cota. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, especially the family and friends of the young man who lost his life in the incident.”

“For those of us with heating oil and propane customers in greater Merrimack Valley, we stand ready to help home and business owners safely restore or repair their heating and cooling systems if needed and provide fuel to emergency response teams working in the area,” said Jim Townsend, CEO of Townsend Energy in Danvers, in the message released by MEMA.

At least one heating oil company serving the affected areas posted messages on its website and social media pages, offering specialized aid to those in need. In “A Message to Our Friends in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover,” Dedham, MA-based MacFarlane Energy wrote, “We stand ready to provide home comfort and energy assistance to anyone who has been affected. This includes: 24/7 emergency service for customers without heat or hot water, repairs or replacements for any damaged heating or air conditioning equipment, diesel and biodiesel delivery for use in backup generators [and] installation of automatic standby generators.”

Utility officials are currently working toward a November 19 deadline to restore natural gas service across Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. However, speaking privately, many energy professionals have expressed doubts regarding the utilities’ ability to meet this goal. Oil & Energy will continue to follow the story as it develops.

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