Last week, a series of explosions occurred throughout the Massachusetts neighborhoods of Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover. Initial reports revealed that dozens of structures were on fire as fire crews responded to a cascading sequence of emergency calls. Columbia Gas was quickly mentioned by media outlets as the company that provided energy services to all three neighborhoods.
This week, senators from Massachusetts are seeking answers from the gas company for the incident.
A History of Neglect
As events progressed, Columbia Gas’ history was explored. With probing, details emerged that NiSource, parent company of Columbia Gas, has a history of explosions involving its pipelines. Importantly, one 2012 explosion in West Virginia was detected before NiSource took any action. It took the actions of a different gas company to make NiSource aware that a wall of flames, caused by their own pipeline, had engulfed Interstate 77. The National Transportation Safety Board found NiSource to be at blame for the incident and noted the company’s failure to conduct basic maintenance resulted in exterior rusting which weakened the pipeline’s integrity. Comments from the NTSB noted that it was extremely lucky that no one died in the incident.
Last Friday, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera was critical of NiSource’s response time to the incident that rocked his neighborhoods. The mayor stated, “Since we first got word of this incident, the least informed and last to act has been Columbia Gas.” Unfortunately, it appears that not much has changed since NiSource’s 2012 Interstate 77 explosion. The company was pulled from repair and recovery efforts by local officials after Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency. Another gas company will be leading efforts to repair gas lines.
An Aging Infrastructure at 12 Times Normal Pressure
Last week, we reported that Columbia Gas owns and manages some of the nation’s oldest pipelines. In fact, the company recently announced that 15 percent of its pipeline was aging and was at a dangerous risk of explosion. It was supposed to begin replacing pipeline in Massachusetts beginning this week. Instead, authorities have discovered that the area’s gas lines were at 12 times their normal pressure. Before Thursday’s explosions, a control room in Ohio detected pressures of 6 pounds per square inch in pipes that are only supposed to carry 0.5 pounds per square inch.
This means that pipes which were known to be dangerously old, and that were scheduled to be replaced in just a few days because of their condition, were being stressed with pressure far greater than they were designed for—even when they were new. Though it is not currently known what Columbia Gas did with the information from the Ohio control room, it is known that the natural gas company took more than four hours to publicly acknowledge the situation. As confused residents of Massachusetts entered the streets and watched their neighborhoods burn, NiSource and Columbia Gas revealed nothing to ease the chaotic situation.
Massachusetts Senators Demand Answers
Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren are now demanding answers for the events of last Thursday. After being briefed on the situation by the NTSB, Markey and Warren immediately sought to begin hearings with Columbia Gas and NiSource. In a statement to the press, NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said, “It is imperative that people of the commonwealth … understand what caused this disaster and how you [Columbia Gas] responded to it, in order to ensure that we never again face a similar tragedy.”
The Massachusetts gas explosion lawyers at Arnold & Itkin agree—residents who have suffered deserve answers. We will watch as thorough investigations reveal how much responsibility Columbia Gas and NiSource bear for this tragedy.