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Columbia Gas Must Inspect 700 Lines Abandoned After Last Year's Merrimack Valley Explosions

Utility contractors dig up the road above natural gas lines along Dracut Street in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 after the explosions in the Merrimack Valley area serviced by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Utility contractors dig up the road above natural gas lines along Dracut Street in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 after the explosions in the Merrimack Valley area serviced by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts. (Charles Krupa/AP)

The state's Department of Public Utilities will investigate whether Columbia Gas of Massachusetts violated state or federal law when it abandoned two gas lines in the Merrimack Valley.

The announcement comes hours after Columbia Gas agreed to inspect more than 700 gas lines abandoned after explosions in the Merrimack Valley last year.

In a statement released Thursday, the company said it is contacting customers associated with the discontinued lines "out of an abundance of caution" after finding "issues of noncompliance" with at least two of the abandoned lines.

"Columbia Gas did not abandon these service pipes in the manner required by federal regulations, state regulations, and Columbia Gas’ Procedures and, therefore, Columbia Gas violated federal and state pipeline safety law. Columbia Gas has since sealed the services at these two locations,"Matthew Cyr, public utilities engineer at the department's Pipeline Safety Division, wrote to Columbia in a letter released earlier in the day on Thursday.

The lines were among the 4,900 abandoned in the wake of the 2018 explosions in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover, which were caused by over-pressurized gas lines. One person died during the ordeal when a chimney collapsed onto a car he was sitting inside.

“We recognize that our customers have been through a difficult year as we conducted the recovery and restoration work in these communities. We understand that additional work may frustrate them, and we apologize,” said Mark Kempic, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts president and chief operating officer in the statement.

In a letter to Columbia Gas, Department of Public Utilities Chair Matthew Nelson outlined the work Columbia Gas had to complete to satisfy the agency. That includes conducting leak surveillance and reporting locations to the department; providing daily updates and coordinating all work with the state and affected communities; sharing a communication plan for affected customers and communities; providing a map all of the abandoned lines; and sharing all company documentation concerns about the two lines that raised alarms.

Columbia Gas faces penalties of up to $1 million per violation if it does not meet the state's conditions, according to the letter.

"While the abandoned services are not active and do not affect customers’ current service lines or heat, the issues identified regarding the two abandoned services concern the Department and indicate violations of Department regulations," Nelson wrote in the letter. "These issues will require inspections and potentially additional work to properly cap the abandoned lines."

Columbia expects to complete the work by Nov. 16, though in his letter Nelson said he expects them the work to be done sooner.

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Roberto Scalese Twitter Digital Producer
Roberto Scalese is a digital producer and editor. 

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