Two years before homes exploded in the Merrimack Valley, the pressure in Columbia Gas pipes rose dangerously high — a violation of federal safety regulations that only recently led to a $75,000 fine and orders from state regulators for the utility to clean up its act.
The Department of Public Utilities issued five violations linked to the incident and levied the previously unreported fine on Columbia Gas two months after the September explosions that killed one person, injured dozens of others and left hundreds without gas in their homes for months.
The incident that led to the DPU's reprimand happened in February 2016 in Taunton. The pressure in Columbia Gas’ pipes hit alarming levels for almost a half hour, records show, violating federal pipeline safety regulations for failing to protect against accidental overpressurization or properly maintain its equipment.
Gas companies are required to tell DPU when pressure in the pipes gets too high. WBUR discovered through public records Columbia Gas has a history of problems with overpressurization. The utility reported five separate incidents over a six-year period — from 2011 to 2016 — when pipeline pressure climbed beyond what’s considered safe. Any pressure that reaches over 10 percent of what the pipe is designed to handle is a violation of federal regulations. And years earlier, in 1999, Columbia Gas faced reprimands from DPU over pipeline safety standards.
Pipeline experts say allowing the pressure to get that high even once is a cause for concern. Richard Kuprewicz was in the pipeline business for 40 years and now works as a consultant. He testified at the congressional hearing in Lawrence on the disaster.
He's stunned by Columbia Gas’ track record.
“Well you can quote me on this but, are you crazy? You just don't do that,” he said. “That would suggest a systemic issue within the company. … Exceeding 10 percent where it is required — even by a few percent — says a lot about the approach to prevent overpressure within a company culture.”
During Columbia Gas’ most significant incident — the one that was the source of the fine — the pressure surged for 27 minutes after an equipment failure. Documents provided by Columbia Gas show the pressure reached more than 15 percent above what it was designed to handle.
Columbia Gas told DPU the overpressurization was because of an “abnormal operating condition” caused by dirt and debris that came from up the line, according to a notice of probable violation DPU sent to the utility in March 2018. DPU rejected that explanation — stating the utility didn’t provide the proper protection against overpressurization, and didn’t have any records showing proper maintenance of its district regulator stations, which control pressure in the pipes.
DPU didn’t explain why there was a two-year lag between the 27-minute spike in pressure and the fine over the incident.
Pipeline expert and Stanford University professor Rob Jackson said any kind of overpressurization for that long is worrisome.
“It's especially dangerous when you’re well above pressure for long periods of time and I consider half an hour to be a long period of time from the standpoint of safety,” he said.
Columbia Gas defended its record in a written response, saying these spikes in pressure “represent a very different set of specifics and circumstances than the tragic events that took place on September 13th in the Merrimack Valley.” Pressure there reached 12 times what it should have been.
“These few occurrences were caused by, for example, equipment malfunction or debris in the system, which the company promptly identified and remedied, or by the actions of an employee of another company, which was also promptly identified and corrected,” Columbia Gas spokesman Dean Lieberman stated.
He said Columbia Gas’ parent company, NiSource, which is based in Merrillville, Indiana, plans to invest $150 million in safety equipment, including “slam shut” devices that would shut down gas when high pressures are detected. Columbia Gas of Massachusetts — the third largest utility in the state — serves a half million customers.
DPU disclosed the fine and consent order after WBUR asked the agency for public records about pipeline pressurization issues. Columbia Gas paid the $75,000 fine, and has hit the deadlines for complying with the consent order so far, such as checking equipment and implementing a “safety management system” alongside DPU.
DPU issued the consent order Nov. 30, 10 days after Gov. Charlie Baker announced legislation requiring all gas line work that could threaten public safety be approved by a certified professional engineer. Baker signed that legislation last month.
In a statement, DPU highlighted the work done by the Baker administration, including the legislation and the hiring of an independent evaluator.
Columbia Gas’ other overpressure incidents didn’t appear to result in any violations.
In the summer of 2011, pressure jumped almost 15 percent beyond safe levels because of a faulty valve, which was quickly replaced.
In July 2016, there was another spike, to almost 12 percent. Columbia Gas said it’s because of an error by a Tennessee Gas Pipeline worker. DPU said that incident is under federal jurisdiction, so it isn’t investigating it.
DPU redacted the locations of the over-pressured pipes and blacked out how high the actual pressure reading was. They used the terrorism exemption in the state’s public records law to hide the information from the public. DPU said release of that information could be used by someone looking to “jeopardize such infrastructure.” Columbia Gas made the pressure readings public at the request of WBUR, but didn’t reveal the locations.
Columbia Gas hasn’t been alone in having issues with overpressurization. In 2015, DPU cited National Grid for pressure that jumped too high in service lines three times the previous year. While testing the lines, the utility damaged some customers' home appliances.
National Grid admitted fault and signed a consent order. The utility paid a $75,000 fine, updated its manual, and provided more training to employees, DPU stated. National Grid said that didn’t involve gas, but test air. (WBUR has asked for the consent order, but DPU hasn’t yet provided it.)
Last month, Rhode Island’s governor declared a state of emergency after a pressure problem in National Grid’s pipes. Gas service was cut off to more than 7,000 homes and businesses while temperatures plummeted.
This segment aired on February 4, 2019.