Eight days after a massive gas explosion upended Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, Massachusetts, officials announced an ambitious 60-day schedule to replace 48-miles of natural gas pipeline and related infrastructure. Officials said 2,000 meters could be brought back to full service in the next two weeks and that they plan to complete the entire reconstruction by Nov. 19. 

“Everyone’s top priority is safety,” Gov. Charlie Baker said during a Sept. 21 press briefing. “The team has devised a plan to meet all levels of safety and that is intended to quickly and efficiently complete each step.”

The Sept. 13 explosions were caused by extra pressure coursing through a Columbia Gas natural gas pipeline, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which says its full investigation into the cause of the incident could take up to two years. The explosion set 80 buildings on fire, killed one person, injured several others and displaced scores of people who are now left without natural gas heading into the winter season.

'A Classic Engineering Contingency Operation'

Baker also announced Sept. 21 that former Navy Seabee Joseph Albanese will oversee the effort to restore full gas service to 8,527 customers. The retired Navy captain who commanded a division of the United States Naval Construction Battalions is a professional engineer who founded Commodore Builders. He currently serves as the Boston-based firm’s chief executive.

“This is a classic engineering contingency operation, one I’m trying to do with my military experience behind me and my construction experience in the local markets,” Albanese said during the Sept. 21 briefing. “I’ve been tasked to build a team to provide command, control and communications to manage this effort, and safety will be paramount.”

Christina Sames, the American Gas Association’s vice president of operations and engineering called Albanese a “respected outside party who has experience in a variety of areas.”

Albanese retired from service as a captain in the U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps in 2009 after extensive service in the Middle East. He says dozens of “highly qualified firms and thousands of workers” have already been assembled and are being supported by the Massachusetts National Guard. “This has been and will continue to be an overwhelming effort,” he said.   

The effort is more reasonable than the initial timeline. Last week, a Columbia Gas spokesman told the Boston Globe that the company planned to complete the project by the end of September, a timetable that several safety experts warned was too fast. Richard Kuprewicz, president of Washington-based pipeline safety firm Accufacts Inc., told ENR that the new timetable is more “plausible and workable.”

Sames said New Jersey Natural Gas completed similarly sized projects after pipelines were damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

The Massachusetts reconstruction involves replacing the existing cast iron and bare steel distribution system with plastic pipes, state-of-the-art infrastructure and safety features such as excess flow valves that automatically shut off gas flow if a service line is damaged or broken. “Services will be restored only after new facilities have been fully inspected, tested and proven safe,” Joe Hamrock, chief executive for NiSource Inc., the Indiana-based firm that owns Columbia Gas, said in a statement.

While twenty crews were on the ground as of Sept. 21, Albanese said that number would grow to 60 by Sept. 24 and to 195 by Oct. 8. Albanese said he is “confident” his team will “meet and exceed the expectations of the community.” But he also noted that “we can’t underestimate the demand that we have ahead of us.”

Kuprewicz, an adviser to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said the size of the crew isn’t as important as preventing new explosions by isolating active gas pressure while working so quickly. “The isolation may roll as you activate more and more of the older systems that are being replaced,” he said. “It’s important that they have protocols and procedures to make sure active gas does not get into their system that they are working on.” 

He added the project team has an advantage because the work had already been planned, though intended for completion over years instead of months. Kuprewicz also said the fact the gas is already shut off will help the crews expedite work.

Environmental Partners Group, a Quincy, Mass.-based engineering firm, was hired by Lawrence, North Andover and Andover to serve as the construction manager for the three municipalities.  

Crews to Deliver Heaters, Cooktops

Crews have already started delivering and installing 24,000 electrical space heaters and 7,000 self-contained cooktops to homes unable to use gas-powered stoves and furnaces. Teams that include electricians and plumbers will inspect homes to ensure the temporary appliances can be installed safely. If homes that are unable to use the temporary units can’t be rewired, the residents could be relocated, Baker said. 

Sames said she was glad to see that the team has “a great plan in place” to inspect internal home gas lines because few companies have experience with internal lines —those lines are typically the customers’ responsibly.

 “Replacing the pipeline itself and the services that go to homes and businesses, we know they could handle that because of the resources that are at their disposal,” she said. “It was inside the homes that we were waiting to hear about.”

Baker couldn’t estimate the cost of the reconstruction and relief efforts in Massachusetts but said Columbia will pay for it. He did say that “Due to the incredible circumstances and complexity of last week’s events, the road to recovery will take time.”