Gov. Baker ends state of emergency issued in 2018 for the Merrimack Valley gas explosions

BOSTON — On Tuesday, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced the state of emergency issued during the Merrimack Valley gas explosions and fires was officially lifted.

Declared on Sept. 14, 2018, Baker issued the state of emergency order for the towns of Andover and North Andover and the city of Lawrence, which was hit hardest during the tragedy that rocked the Merrimack Valley. The order allowed the Chairman of the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) to take any action necessary to ensure public safety and welfare in the aftermath of the gas explosions.

The state of emergency allowed the DPU to do whatever it took to restore gas, electricity and water utility services to residents. Despite the termination of the state of emergency, the DPU will continue to ensure residents and business owners are safe and have the resources they need in their homes and businesses through a rigorous oversight of natural gas companies and infrastructure.

“The termination of the State of Emergency is an important milestone in the Commonwealth’s recovery from the tragic gas incident in the Merrimack Valley,” said DPU Chairman Matthew Nelson. “Under Governor Baker’s leadership, we remain committed to supporting the impacted communities and to continually working to ensure the safety of the public and the gas pipeline system.”

After the gas explosions and subsequent fires, the DPU authorized Eversource Energy to take management control over the restoration efforts while Columbia Gas, the utility company responsible for the gas explosions, was ordered to impose a moratorium on all work, except for emergency and compliance work. They were also required to enter into an agreement with Nitsch Engineering to monitor the company’s management of the restoration and recovery work.

The Merrimack Valley gas explosions and fires devastated homes and businesses and one person was killed. Leonel Rondon, 18, was sitting in his friend’s driveway inside his car when a chimney collapsed on top of him. About two dozen others were injured, and dozens of buildings were damaged or destroyed.

That same year, on Dec. 31, Baker and his administration signed into law a bill requiring all natural gas work that could potentially pose a material risk to public safety be reviewed and approved by a certified, professional engineer. The Baker-Polito Administration and the Northeast Gas Association also announced that all natural gas companies in Massachusetts will adopt recommended comprehensive pipeline safety management standards.

According to a news release, the reason why the state of emergency lasted into 2020 was so the companies involved in the incident, not taxpayers, would pay for an independent auditor who conducted a statewide examination of the safety of the natural gas distribution system and the operational and maintenance functions of natural gas companies in Massachusetts.

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Baker also signed a budget that included enough funds to supoort and enhavnce the Pipeline Safety Division’s critical testing, investigations, and oversight responsibilities to ensure that natural gas distribution companies and other utilities are complying with safety regulations. The DPU’s oversight of these pipelines was also expanded, where now the DPU has nearly tripled the size of it’s Pipeline Safety Division since the explosions in 2018.

Over $13 million in emergency funds was approved by the Baker Administration for businesses directly impacted by the recent gas explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. Baker also reinforced that he and his administration have been committed to holding Columbia Gas accountable for the incident and any pipeline safety violations. Following the release of the NTSB’s final report regarding the September 13, 2018 gas incident in Merrimack Valley, the DPU formally opened two public investigations into the incident.

In Aug. 2020, the Baker Administration and Attorney General Maura Healey reached an agreement with Columbia Gas requiring the company pay $56 million for its role in the Merrimack Valley gas explosions and to leave the state by the upcoming heating season. Those funds will provide necessary resources for thousands of low-income gas customers and enable energy efficiency efforts in older homes and buildings in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence.