Residents of Lawrence, Massachusetts complained regularly in recent months to their local gas utility about the smell of natural gas. They called Columbia Gas of Massachusetts multiple times to report the smell of natural gas — every gas company urges customers to call if they smell gas — only to have the utility tell them that it’s normal to smell gas in their neighborhood.
It’s too early to determine if the constant smell of natural gas, as reported by the Washington Post, was related to last Thursday’s deadly series of fires and explosions in Lawrence and the neighboring towns of Andover and North Andover, Massachusetts. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is serving as the lead investigative agency, is expected to look at the circumstances leading up to the disaster.
State and local lawmakers appear to be prepared to hold the politically powerful Columbia Gas, a subsidiary of NiSource Inc., accountable if it is found that the gas utility company was at fault for explosions and fires.
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera (D) criticized Columbia Gas on Friday, accusing the company of being “the least informed and the last to act” and of “hiding from the problem” before the series of natural gas explosions and fires.
On the same day, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) called a state of emergency in the Merrimack Valley — the area of the state where the towns are located — and used his authority to put Eversource, another Massachusetts gas utility, in charge of recovery efforts after Columbia Gas failed to make significant progress in the 24 hours after the explosions and fires.
In the meantime, officials are making sure local residents are receiving the necessary assistance. “The state’s first priority is to ensure the safety of the Merrimack Valley, assist fire victims, and restore power and gas to residents,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said Friday in a statement.
Healey and the head of her office of energy visited the three towns over the weekend, meeting with residents as well as utility officials to learn about the recovery process.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) will be conducting its own investigation into the disaster. The Office of Attorney General, which also serves as the state consumer advocate, will work to make sure the DPU’s investigative process remains transparent.
Of the 8,600 gas meters that were shut down after the disaster, 5,515 of them are located in Lawrence, a working-class city. A large percentage of the city’s 80,000 residents are recent immigrants from the Caribbean. The disaster also struck middle-class areas of Andover and North Andover.
Over the weekend, most residents whose houses were not damaged or destroyed were allowed to return home. But Eversource officials said it could take weeks for the company to conduct safety inspections and restore service to the residences.
Some say last week’s explosions are reminiscent of a 2010 event when a large-diameter natural gas pipeline exploded into flames in a middle-class neighborhood of San Bruno, California. State officials and the public kept the pressure on state regulators to make sure the cause of the disaster, which killed eight people and destroyed dozens of houses, was determined as quickly as possible.
The investigation found that lax oversight by California state regulators contributed to the explosion. Pacific Gas and Electric has since been forced to pay more than $1 billion in fines and penalties related to the disaster.
For the Massachusetts disaster, U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, both Democrats from the state, sent a letter last Friday to Senate Commerce Committee leaders urging an immediate hearing into fires and explosions. The Senate Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over both the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which regulates natural gas transmission and distribution lines, and the NTSB.
Markey and Warren are asking to hear from regulators and the distribution company Columbia Gas to understand how this incident occurred and what must be done to ensure these types of accidents do not happen again. Columbia Gas of Massachusetts also was responsible for a 2012 explosion in Springfield, Massachusetts, in which 18 people were injured.
“We urge the Committee to call a hearing immediately with representatives from PHMSA, NTSB, and the natural gas distribution industry, including Columbia Gas of Massachusetts and NiSource, in order to examine whether regulators have adequate authority and resources to detect and remedy violations, respond to natural gas accidents in a timely manner, and ensure better operating procedures for companies linked to repeated misconduct,” the Senators wrote in their committee leaders.
A Columbia Gas spokesperson said he could not offer any insight into what caused the fires and explosion until the NTSB has completed its investigation.
The NTSB said over the weekend that it will investigate a pressure increase detected on Columbia Gas’s gas distribution system as it tries to figure out what caused the series of fires and gas explosions.
On Sunday, Columbia Gas said it is working with governor’s office and other parties in the region to accelerate the replacement of the entire affected 48-mile cast iron and bare steel pipeline system in the towns of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover with plastic distribution mains and service lines, and safety features such as pressure regulation and excess flow valves at each premise.
The story has been updated to clarify which information was relayed to ThinkProgress on background versus on the record.