Columbia Gas to inspect 700 abandoned gas lines

Columbia Gas to inspect 700 abandoned gas lines

BOSTON — A day before the anniversary of last year's destructive gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley, Columbia Gas said Thursday it would begin safety inspections on 700 home and business service lines abandoned during restoration efforts.

A variety of precautionary safety steps were ordered by the Department of Public Utilities on Wednesday after Columbia Gas notified regulators about concerns the company had with work on two of the abandoned lines.

Columbia Gas then announced Thursday that it would begin contacting customers associated with about 700 abandoned service lines to schedule inspections either inside or outside of the home or business, depending on the customer's preference.

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"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, president and chief CEO of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts.

Last year's explosions knocked out gas service to thousands of customers in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover in an accident that killed one man and damaged over 130 homes and businesses. It took months for service to be fully restored.

The utility said the service lines, which were disconnected from gas mains and are no longer in use, do not pose any known safety concerns, but "some instances of noncompliance with Massachusetts requirements related to the process of abandoning service lines" were detected.

"These compliance checks are being conducted out of an abundance of caution and in order to verify that the work on these lines was done consistent with Massachusetts requirements," the company said in a statement posted on its website. "These compliance checks will not affect the new service lines that were installed in the fall, and therefore there will be no disruption to gas service for customers."

DPU Chairman Matthew Nelson wrote a letter to Kempic on Wednesday laying out a variety of safety precautions the company must take as it begins the work on the abandoned lines, including daily reporting to the agency on mandatory leak surveillance in public areas where the abandoned lines are located.

Nelson also ordered Columbia Gas to provide the DPU the addresses of all abandoned lines, the location of all Grade 1, 2, and 3 leaks within half a mile of abandoned service lines as of Sept. 11, 2019, and detailed work plans.

"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.

"These issues will require inspections and potentially additional work to properly cap the abandoned lines," Nelson said.

The DPU said that Columbia Gas abandoned 4,900 services lines during the restoration of gas services to customers impacted by last September's explosions, which were caused by overpressurization in the system.

Officials did not immediately respond to questions about whether all 4,900 lines would need to be inspected.

The DPU said Columbia Gas expects to complete the "initial phase" of its work by Nov. 16, but the agency hopes that it can be prioritized and completed sooner.

Failure to comply with DPU's orders regarding the abandoned service lines could result in fines of up to $1 million for each violation.