December 2018, Vol. 245, No. 12


Columbia Gas’ Merrimack Valley Accident: Fallout Just Starting

By Tom Ewing

O n Sept. 13, at about 4 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, a series of explosions and fires erupted in a gas distribution system in the city of Lawrence, Mass., and the nearby towns of Andover and North Andover, about 25 miles north of Boston. The distribution system is owned and operated by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts (Columbia Gas), a subsidiary of NiSource.

The consequences were tragic and severe. One person was killed and at least 21 others, including 2 firefighters, were hospitalized. At least five homes and several structures were destroyed, and damage extended to 131 structures. An initial analysis by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) indicated that high-pressure gas was released into a low-pressure distribution system. Most damage resulted from fires ignited by gas-fueled appliances.

Preliminary Cause

In a preliminary report dated Oct. 11, the NTSB described how a series of construction and monitoring errors likely led to the disaster. It said Columbia Gas failed to require contract workers replacing century-old pipes in Lawrence to relocate pressure sensors during pipeline work, resulting in over-pressured lines that caused the explosions and fires.

Operators responded by increasing pressure to 12 times the system’s design standards, according to a letter from U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Citing the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) as source, the senators wrote that pressure “should have been around 0.5 pounds per square inch (psi), but readings in the area reached at least 6 psi.”

Not surprisingly, considering the severity of the accident, intensive recovery efforts are still underway. Columbia Gas expected manpower on the project to increase to almost 1,400 plumbers, gas fitters, assessors, electricians and other specialists. In an updated timeline released on Oct. 26, Columbia advised “all affected residents should expect to have their homes ‘house ready’ and restored with gas service’ between Dec. 2 and Dec. 16 – three months after their evacuation.

Broader Implications

As one would expect the incident caused federal and state regulators to jump into action, to uncover causes and what preventative lessons there might be. NTSB is the lead agency, coordinating work among federal, state and local offices. But other investigations could also implications for pipeline operations in Massachusetts beyond. Markey and Warren have continued to press for answers, while charging in a joint letter that Columbia Gas and NiSource management appeared to be “woefully unprepared for a major, system-wide disaster.”

Many of the senators’ questions should be answered by the NTSB’s study, which is expected to take six to nine months. However, lawmakers could keep the case in the spotlight for a longer period. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, of which Markey is a member, will hold an investigative hearing in the Lawrence region. Warren and Markey want to hear from representatives from PHMSA, NTSB and “the natural gas distribution industry.” The hearing date has yet to be to be set.

Some of the points emphasized in Markey’s and Warren’s correspondence may serve as an indicator of areas that will attract ongoing scrutiny, most notably Columbia Gas’ integrity management (IM) and emergency response plans. The Senators have raised questions regarding the quality of and compliance with those plans and PHMSA is it is aware of any discrepancies between those plans and Columbia’s actual operations.

Another indication of potential regulatory change stemmed from the NTSB’s preliminary finding that critical valves controlling the gas flow in Massachusetts were not shut for nearly three and a half hours after the first alarm was raised at Columbia Gas’ monitoring center in Ohio. The center had no ability to remotely open or close valves on its own, but did notify technicians, it added.

The senators have asked PHMSA about these system limitations and whether requiring remote shut-off capabilities for distribution pipelines would improve safety. “If so,” the senators inquired, “what is PHMSA doing to require this?”

In a hint that financial demands could also be a topic in Senate committee hearings, the senators compared Columbia Gas’ $10 million donation to a disaster relief fund with the $100 million fund established by California’s Pacific Gas & Electric Co. after a 2010 explosion at its San Bruno gas storage facility. In addition to the considerably larger financial contribution, the senators also cited the timeliness with which the fund provided benefits to those affected by the incident.

State Response

The Senators’ questions for PHMSA regarding IM and emergency planning illustrate just how these many issues are intertwined at state and federal levels. In reply to Markey and Warren, PHMSA Administrator Howard Elliott explained that the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) is certified by PHMSA for natural gas intrastate pipeline inspection and enforcement. In other words, Massachusetts officials are on-point for ensuring sound and adequate IM and emergency response plans.

In fact, the state DPU last reviewed Columbia Gas’ distribution IM plan on Nov. 20, 2015, and found that it complied with PHMSA guidelines. Similarly, the company’s emergency response plan – reviewed annually in a process that allows for public comment – was approved by the DPU just four months before the accident.

Nevertheless, the accident has prompted additional government review. Massachusetts announced plans to conduct an “independent statewide examination of the safety of the natural gas distribution system,” expanding the response well beyond the scope of the NTSB’s incident investigation.

For pipeline companies, this presents one immediate policy demand from the accident. All of the natural gas distribution companies operating in Massachusetts will be required to pay for the study, which will start after a contractor is selected. The study is expected to take 120 days.

Public Perception

For pipeline companies operating in New England, the impact of the Columbia Gas incident extends to public perception, as well, potentially benefiting pipeline opponents who have already been waging aggressive campaigns against new construction or expansion in the region.

The timing could hardly be worse for an industry that has sought to strengthen regional support in response to increased negative news coverage generated by media-savvy protesters. Just last year, the Northeast Gas Association (NGA) launched the “Massachusetts Energy Reliability Awareness Campaign” to educate the public about the importance of natural gas infrastructure in the Commonwealth.

Asked how the Sept. 13 accident would affect the industry or its opposition, NGA President and CEO Thomas M. Kiley recognized the impact of the tragedy on the three communities and said the industry has been and remains deeply committed to the continual improvement of safety.

“Our joint priority,” Kiley responded, “is to see this system restored. And then we can focus on continuing our communication on the central role that natural gas continues to play in the state’s economy and energy system, and on any improvements that need to be made in system operations.”

Kiley commented that, indeed, some people are using the accident as a rationale for “weaning off gas,” but the response of most people has been to focus on “ensuring the integrity of the system” on behalf of the 1.6 million natural gas customers in Massachusetts.

The share of renewable energy forms is increasing in the region, and the NGA has voiced frequent support in favor of this trend, but Kiley emphasized that natural gas remains the most popular fuel choice for the state and New England homeowners.

“The industry needs to continue to meet this growing demand with safe and responsible service,” Kiley said. “We are working to regain and sustain the trust our customers have shown in our product over many years.” P&GJ

Author: Tom Ewing is a freelance writer specializing in energy and environmental issues.

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