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NiSource utility restores Mass. gas service after explosions, faces lawmakers

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NiSource utility restores Mass. gas service after explosions, faces lawmakers

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has restored gas service to substantially all customers affected by a September series of fires and explosions, but the gas utility and its peers remain under close scrutiny.

The utility, along with state and local officials, said Dec. 12 that nearly all residences and businesses in the affected communities have heat, hot water and working gas appliances. There are fewer than 200 customers who either decided to complete necessary assessments and installations independent of Columbia Gas contractors or have extenuating circumstances, the company said.

The NiSource Inc. utility in late October completed the pipeline replacement project that it started after the explosions, upgrading 43.5 miles of gas main lines and 5,086 service lines to remove outdated, largely low-pressure pipe in the communities affected by the Sept. 13 blasts. However, Columbia Gas, formally known as Bay State Gas Co., had trouble getting sufficient staffing, appliances and access to relight all the affected pilot lights, and the utility missed its November deadline for restoring gas access to all customers.

Columbia Gas and other gas utilities in the state have come under closer scrutiny in the wake of the ruptures and fires in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, Mass., which killed one person, sent at least 21 people to the hospital and damaged 131 structures.

State lawmakers at a Dec. 11 hearing of the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy questioned the safety of Massachusetts gas systems, the adequacy of utility training programs and state regulators' ability to sufficiently oversee the utilities' operations.

"It's unacceptable that natural gas providers treat the safety of our citizens so casually [a]nd it's disgraceful that it takes a tragedy as devastating as the Columbia Gas explosion to force them to reconsider their blatant disregard for their customers well-being," Democratic state Sen. Marc Pacheco said in an online post in light of the hearing. "The commonwealth provides natural gas companies the opportunity to reap substantial profits, but they have repaid that trust by cutting corners on infrastructure and taking unnecessary risks that threaten public safety."

Sen. Michael Barrett, a Democrat who chairs the joint committee from the state Senate side, expressed concern about gas utilities' ability to ensure that their contractors are appropriately trained for the tasks at hand. Highlighting the companies' accelerated infrastructure replacement programs to address widespread aging infrastructure, coupled with a tight job market and increased reliance on contractor labor, Barrett questioned how well the utilities are able to instill a focus on safety in the workforce carrying out extensive work in the field.

"It's harder to extend the much-publicized and always ballyhooed 'culture of safety' when the people aren't even your own," Barrett said during the hearing. "I'm concerned that there are safety challenges to the particular position in which we find ourselves."

Safety culture is a key component of the American Petroleum Institute's pipeline safety management systems recommended practice, issued in 2015. Safety management systems involve a cyclical, holistic approach to understanding and mitigating risk, and while the recommended practice remains voluntary, regulators have sometimes pushed companies to adopt the practice.

During the Dec. 11 hearing, executives from Massachusetts' gas utilities — Columbia Gas, Eversource Energy, Berkshire Gas Co., National Grid USA and Unitil Corp. — highlighted the potential for industrywide safety improvements if the state were to formally adopt safety management systems.

Republican Sen. Bruce Tarr pushed for both the industry and the state to take steps to prevent similar disasters from happening in the future.

"We have a lot of work to do. We have always known about the inherent risk of natural gas. ... We are now in a different era," Tarr said. "We have seen a systemic failure that has caused indescribable hardship and tragic loss of life, and it's my opinion that there's a role for all of us to play to prevent that from ever happening again."