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US government shutdown delaying Mass. gas blasts investigation, senator warns

The federal government shutdown is delaying the investigation into a deadly September 2018 series of gas explosions and fires in Massachusetts, potentially postponing related safety fixes that could come out of the investigation, according to one U.S senator.

The National Transportation Safety Board has been leading the investigation into the disaster on NiSource Inc. subsidiary Columbia Gas of Massachusetts' system.

"We need to fund government and provide the NTSB the resources it needs to complete its investigation and compile a comprehensive account of the safety lapses that led to the deadly disaster in Merrimack Valley," Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said in a Jan. 3 statement on the Massachusetts blasts.

"Without the results of this investigation, the people of this community cannot hope to move forward. The residents of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover have already had to wait too long for answers; they should not have to wait any longer," Markey said. Markey is a member of the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over the NTSB.

The NTSB did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The most recent public statement from the NTSB came Dec. 26, 2018, when the agency tweeted that because of the "lapse in appropriations and government shutdown," it would have to stop monitoring its social media pages.

A preliminary NTSB investigation report said human error had likely played a critical role in the blasts and fires that left one person dead, at least 21 people injured and 131 structures damaged. The board in November 2018 made "urgent" recommendations for NiSource, its subsidiaries and the state of Massachusetts to change certain key practices and policies to prevent similar events from occurring.

The board typically makes recommendations — to a company, federal and state regulators, and any other relevant parties — at the end of its investigations. But when the NTSB encounters pressing concerns during the course of an investigation, the agency releases that information on an urgent basis. This type of action is also delayed while the investigation is on hold during the government shutdown.

The U.S. government partially shut down Dec. 22 after federal lawmakers failed to reach an agreement over a spending bill. At the heart of the disagreement is President Donald Trump's demand for $5 billion to fund a wall between the U.S.-Mexico border.