Feds recommend new requirements after natural gas disaster

BOSTON — Federal officials are recommending stronger nationwide requirements for natural gas systems following last September's natural gas explosions and fires in Massachusetts.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday every state should require all natural gas infrastructure projects be reviewed and approved by a licensed professional engineer.

Nineteen states currently have such a requirement but most have specifically exempt the natural gas industry from such review requirements, the office said.

"In all 50 states, you have to have a license to cut hair, but you can design a gas system that affects public safety, and 31 states exempt you from having a license or even an engineering degree," said Robert Hall, who heads the agency's office of Railroad, Pipeline, and Hazardous Material Investigations, during the board's discussion and vote on the recommendations in Washington, D.C.

The board also recommended that natural gas utilities be required to install additional safeguards on low pressure, natural gas systems like the one involved in the Sept. 13, 2018 disaster .

Officials concluded last October that the series of explosions and fires had been caused by a gas line that had become overpressurized during a routine pipeline replacement project in Lawrence.

A teenager died, dozens of other people were injured and more than 100 structures were destroyed or damaged in the Merrimack Valley communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. Thousands of residents and businesses were also left without natural gas service for heat and hot water, some for months.

Board members Tuesday placed much of the blame for the disaster on utility company Columbia Gas of Massachusetts.

The utility's "inadequate planning, documentation and recordkeeping" resulted in an unqualified field engineer failing to account for a critical pressure sensing line in the work plan which involved replacing old cast-iron pipes with new plastic ones. That omission caused high pressure gas to flood the system when the replacement work was undertaken, triggering explosions and fires in homes and businesses.

"The project was not done right," said Robert Sumwalt, the board's chair. "The results weren't simply unacceptable. They were catastrophic."

NTSB officials said the company should have been aware of the inherent risks in the pipeline upgrade work and taken necessary precautions. Similar incidents have happened at least seven times over the last 50 years across the U.S., including several involving NiSource, Inc., the Indiana-based parent company of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, they said.

The NTSB also criticized the company for inadequately responding to the disaster as it unfolded.

On Tuesday, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera issued a statement via Twitter on the recent NTSB findings regarding the Merrimack Valley explosions and subsequent fires:

"For the 1st time, we're seeing the whole picture of how disorganized, unprepared & overwhelmed @ColumbiaGasMA was in dealing w/ the disaster. least informed & last to act... I believe there is enough evidence here to constitute the removal of CGMA's license."

Board investigators said it was several hours after the initial explosions before local fire departments were able to reach a gas company official, and that company officials were slow to provide emergency responders a map of its pipeline system.

"It's amazing to me that a company that operated this system for more than 100 years could not produce a readily made map to firefighters," remarked Hall, the NTSB investigator.

Board members acknowledged Tuesday that the utility and the state of Massachusetts have each taken significant steps to prevent a repeat of the disaster, including adopting many of the measures they're now recommending be implemented nationwide.

But they also recommended the utility and Massachusetts public safety officials take additional steps to improve their emergency response.

Police and fire departments responding from across the region struggled to coordinate their response as their internal communications systems quickly became overwhelmed, the board said.

NiSource has said it has spent about $1 billion responding to the disaster, including a $143 million class action settlement. It has also installed automatic shut-off devices on all systems similar to the one impacted in Massachusetts and is enhancing its emergency preparedness and safety management processes.

"Our own understanding of the events generally aligns with that of the NTSB," the company said Tuesday. "As we've said since that tragic day, we take responsibility for what happened. We have committed to our customers and our communities that we will continue to learn from what happened and implement changes to protect the public."