It's deadline day for Merrimack Valley gas restoration

It's deadline day for Merrimack Valley gas restoration

Sunday, Dec. 16, marks Columbia Gas's self-imposed deadline to have gas restored in the Merrimack Valley.

After thousands of people lost gas service in September when over-pressurized lines caused fires and explosions, Columbia Gas has been on the hook for it all.

The explosions killed one person, injured dozens and damaged more than 100 homes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.

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Columbia Gas originally set a Nov. 19 deadline to restore all service to customers, which was soon pushed to Dec. 16. with more work to be done.

According to the latest numbers on Columbia Gas's website, nearly all of the gas lines are ready – there are about 100 residential and business meters that still need to be re-lit. The company added that there are less than 200 remaining customers who decided to do repairs themselves.

Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker, along with Columbia Gas executives and town managers gathered in Lawrence to provide an update on the "substantial completion" of the restoration project.

On Friday, the last batch of trailers left Lawrence after serving more than 900 people at its peak. It served as a community for those who didn't want to leave, but needed a place to have heat and hot water.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera came up with the idea and spoke about the significance the trailers served.

"It was a sad day when we had to turn this into an RV park, but it was some solace that folks from Bailey Street and Abbott and Salem and Market – all these places that are around here, Springfield Street – could find a place to come that's really close to their home,” Rivera said.

For residents like Mark Fitzgerald of North Andover, the entire ordeal has been an absolute nightmare.

"The police came to my door and they asked me to leave," said Fitzgerald. "They told me there were gas explosions in the area and it was unsafe for me to be in the house."

Fitzgerald remembers it like it was yesterday that the explosions rocked the Merrimack Valley.

As of Sunday, Columbia Gas' deadline, Fitzgerald was one of many still without heat. When he asked how they would help him and his family, now that Christmas is about a week away, Columbia Gas said they have no obligation to help.

"I just think the gas company could be a little more cooperative in this whole process," said Fitzgerald.

Like most Merrimack Valley customers affected by the explosions, as soon they happened Fitzgerald took the precautionary step of shutting off gas to his house.

"I contacted Columbia Gas over the next few weeks asking them when they were going to come out and restore service, and they told me my street wasn't scheduled yet," said Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald says he also filed claims with Columbia Gas for overnight lodging and other expenses, which triggered a call from Columbia's insurance company in early November.

"And they said, 'We just typed in your address on the gas company website and it comes up as not affected,'" said Fitzgerald.

Essentially, Fitzgerald learned that the entire time he had gone without gas he could've had it. A few days later, a technician came to restart his service.

"But when they got to the furnace they said, 'The vent isn't proper, we can't relight it,' and they red-tagged it," said Fitzgerald.

However, now Fitzgerald can't get the furnace replaced until at least January and cannot run space heaters because his electrical system is too old.

Last week, desperate for solutions, he called the town manager's office. That got him temporary relief from Columbia Gas in the form of a generator.

"They called me up this morning and they said we're going to pull the generator," said Fitzgerald. "I said, 'Look, I don't have any heat in the house, that's going to be a problem because the pipes might freeze. They said, 'Look, our determination is you're not affected, so we're pulling the generator as well.'"

The relief from dealing with Columbia Gas was only temporary as they said they would pull his generator and they did.

A spokesperson for Columbia Gas says that in the early days following the explosions there may have been some confusion over who was affected and who was not.

What's confusing to Fitzgerald is this past summer, when a gas company contractor moved his meter from inside to outside, they had to shut off the furnace. When it was time to turn the furnace back on, they did it without question.