In the days just before Halloween, Massachusetts residents impacted by the Sept. 13 natural gas explosion received both a trick and a treat.
While a project to replace just about 45-miles of pipeline and nearly 6,000 service lines in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover was completed three weeks early on Oct. 30, Columbia Gas says full gas service will not be completed until Dec. 16—about a month after the initial Nov. 19 deadline to fully complete the project.
Joe Albanese, Gov. Charlie Baker's hand-selected chief recovery officer for the project, said in a statement that the utility, its contractor and "crews from 10 states pulled together to complete this unprecedented engineering operation efficiently, and most important – safely. It was a first-class team that planned and executed this project. While this is an important milestone, we are well-aware the complex work inside homes has faced challenges, and we are laser-focused on increasing the pace and productivity of that work.”
The Sept. 13 explosion killed one man, injured 25 people, damaged or destroyed more than 130 buildings and left thousands without gas service. An initial report released by the National Transportation and Safety Board said a misplaced sensor erroneously over pressurized the gas system before the explosion.
The pipeline portion of the project completed on Oct. 30 included the installation of 43.5 miles of old steel and cast iron gas main pipes and 5,086 service lines. The project team also says it requalified nearly 12.3 miles of main line polyethylene pipe that the utility says provides the community with "state-of-the-art infrastructure and enhanced safety features for the entire system." Columbia says that it is "now renewing its focus on the ‘house-ready’ aspect and shifting resources and staff to that work."
The embattled utility announced on Oct. 26 that its “house ready” work for more than 8,400-metered customers would not be completed before the Nov. 19 deadline. “We’ve made tremendous progress but also encountered obstacles,” Columbia wrote in the Oct. 29 newsletter to customers.
On Oct. 26, the utility said updating outdated systems inside homes is more complicated than it expected because many of those systems require repairs before appliances can be reconnected. The utility originally planned to replace all gas appliances but now says it will repair and reconnect existing appliances when it can be done so safely. New appliances will be installed in the future, Columbia says. Besides installing gas main and service lines, the project team is also installing and testing gas meters at homes and businesses.
As of Oct. 26, service had been restored to more than 1,000 customers, according to the Boston Globe, and service would be restored to about a third of affected customers by the start of the winter heating season in December.
Richard Kuprewicz, president of Washington-based pipeline safety firm Accufacts Inc., told ENR that the the upgrades should give Columbia more control on the mains and service lines. “The in home delay should come as no surprise because the in-house gas piping and appliance infrastructure is not really under the responsibility of Columbia,” he said. “It is, however, very important that the in-house system be properly reviewed and evaluated for safe operation. The frustration of the homeowners for further delays will be understandable, but no one should have their house blowup or burn down by rushing unwisely.”
Kuprewicz said he would “advise Columbia to just try to be as open and truthful as possible, especially as to timing.”
After community complaints about its lack of communication, Columbia pledged on Oct. 26 to do a better job giving residents project updates. The utility says it will find temporary housing for customers whose appliances aren’t repaired or replaced by Nov. 19. “If you are self-mitigating, we will work with you to repair or replace your remaining gas appliances,” the Oct. 29 newsletter states.
Thousands of new workers were being deployed to the region starting on Oct. 29, including plumbers, gas fitters, electricians and inspectors. Columbia Gas' Oct. 29 daily briefing noted that 200 plumbers were added to the team that day to support residential restoration.
Three new contractors—SLS Co., Windover and WGP Companies—were also recently added to a project team that already includes Gilbane Reconstruction Services. Gilbane said it was not at liberty to speak about the project.
SLS repurposed an existing warehouse into an emergency shelter for 1,000 displaced residents. The facility’s services include intake, beds, showers, restrooms, linens, toiletries, catering and dining, pet care and first aid and medical care. “SLS engaged over 75 individuals on the project, and worked closely around the clock with subcontractors, responders and utility personnel to provide safe and comfortable service to evacuees,” SLS wrote on its website.
Several class action lawsuits have been filed against Columbia. The utility paid local residents and businesses $19.8 million in claims as of Oct. 19, according to the Boston Business Journal.
Pablo Vegas, chief restoration officer for Columbia Gas said in a statement, “I’m extremely proud of our employees, contractors, partners in local and state government, and indeed, the entire community who have helped make this phase of our effort to restore gas service to the Greater Lawrence area go so well. Now we will focus our energy and resources to the in-home, ‘house-ready’ part of the project. As we’ve said, we are committed to making homes ‘house-ready’ as safely and efficiently as possible, and that important work continues.”
This story was updated with new information on Oct. 30.