Gas pipeline explosions kill one, drive thousands from homes in Boston suburbs

Boston area's old gas distribution system is full of leaks.

Firefighters inspect a home after gas explosions on September 13, 2018 in North Andover, Massachusetts. CREDIT: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images
Firefighters inspect a home after gas explosions on September 13, 2018 in North Andover, Massachusetts. CREDIT: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Dozens of natural gas explosions rocked communities north of Boston, killing a teenager and injuring two dozen people. The explosions caused fires in at least 39 homes in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, Massachusetts.

About 8,000 people in the communities were displaced from the explosions and fires and more than 100,000 people were without power. In a preliminary assessment, fire investigators suspected the explosions took place because of “over-pressurization of a gas main” owned by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, a NiSource Inc. subsidiary.

But the official cause of the explosions and fires will not be known for months, if not longer. Experts from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates all natural gas pipeline explosions, will be arriving at the scene on Friday to begin their investigation. NTSB investigations into natural gas explosions typically take about a year, although some have taken much longer.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration are also on the scene to participate in the investigations.


Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield described the explosions as “Armageddon,” the Associated Press reported. Mansfield estimated it could be a week and a half before every home in Andover — those that were not damaged or destroyed by the disaster — is inspected and deemed safe for return.

Leonel Rondon, an 18-year-old from Lawrence, died after a house explosion sent a chimney crashing into his car, according to the Associated Press.

Leonel Rondon of Lawrence, Massachusetts died in a natural gas explosion on September 13, 2018. Source: Facebook
Leonel Rondon of Lawrence, Massachusetts died in a natural gas explosion on September 13, 2018. Source: Facebook

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency said at least 25 people were treated for injuries from the explosions and fires.

The explosions and fires resembled the natural gas disaster that struck San Bruno, California — less than 20 miles south of San Francisco — on September 9, 2010, killing eight people and leading to $1 billion in fines and penalties for Pacific Gas and Electric. The California utility owned the natural gas pipeline that exploded and destroyed 55 homes.

The gas utility that serves the Massachusetts communities, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, dispatched crews Thursday night to shut off gas meters and make safety checks to 8,600 customers in the communities around Lawrence. The utility provides natural gas to over 320,000 customers in Massachusetts and is the largest natural gas-only utility in the state.


The company said a number of affiliated Columbia Gas companies and other utilities are providing crews for additional support. “We expect this will be an extended restoration effort, and we will work tirelessly to restore service to the affected customers,” the company said Friday in a statement.

Gas utilities have come under scrutiny in recent years for an aging network of pipelines that leak methane and do not undergo proper inspections and maintenance, according to critics. Older cities, such as Boston and its suburbs, have been found to have thousands of small natural gas leaks.

The Massachusetts Legislature passed a law in 2014 that required gas utilities to accelerate the replacement of old, leaky pipelines. A recent study, however, found about 300,000 metric tons of natural gas leaks, that’s roughly 2.7 percent of all natural gas delivered to the Boston metropolitan region.

According to a statewide analysis of gas leaks in Massachusetts, researchers found that Massachusetts’ aging natural gas pipelines have about 20,000 potentially dangerous and environmentally damaging leaks.

“Replacing leak-prone infrastructure is a leading priority. However, it will take a number of years to eliminate the aging pipe from the gas distribution system,” the company said in a news release in April announcing the rate increase request.


Columbia Gas of Massachusetts President Steve Bryant said in a statement at the time of the rate increase request that a “new state-of-the-art training facility built in Shrewsbury ensures that our workforce is obtaining the skills and capabilities necessary to achieve full compliance with pipeline safety regulations while executing best practices.”

On the day of the explosions, Columbia Gas announced that it was upgrading natural gas lines across Massachusetts, with installation work schedules for various neighborhoods. Lawrence, Andover and North Andover were scheduled to have their gas lines upgraded between September and November.

Shares of NiSource Inc., Columbia Gas’s parent company, dropped about 8 percent in the premarket Friday after the series of gas explosions in Massachusetts.