BOSTON — Gas companies are trying to water down proposed regulations that would require certified engineers sign off on construction work.
The state Department of Utilities is considering rules to require the utilities to get a review and a stamp from a professional engineer for "complex projects" that pose a risk to public safety. The rules stem from a 2018 law signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in response to the Merrimack Valley gas disaster.
But gas companies have complained that the scope of the proposed regulations will make them too costly, and that they are unnecessary.
A group of utilities, including National Grid and Eversource, submitted a litany of proposed changes seeking to limit the kinds of projects that would have to be reviewed.
"Routine, low-risk, non-complex work, such as the installation of service lines that do not involve two or more tie-ins, bypass of a distribution line to supply service or changes to system operating pressures, do not need a (professional engineer's) stamp," the utilities wrote to regulators. "And using resources on those types of simple tasks will be wasteful and costly without achieving any incremental public safety benefit."
Tom Kiley, president and CEO of the Northeast Gas Association, noted that a lack of qualified natural gas engineers could prevent cities and towns from moving ahead with projects, which he argues would jeopardize public safety.
"The current pool of qualified engineers will not be sufficient to handle the workload," he wrote to regulators. "This could lead to work delays and stoppages."
Meanwhile, engineering trade groups point out the new regulations won't be a panacea in preventing future disasters.
"One of the reasons the Merrimack Valley incident occurred was because of a lack of a technical review process that included the appropriate internal stakeholders (operations, construction, etc.)," Abbie Goodman, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Massachusetts, wrote to regulators. "Stamping of plans alone by professional engineers won't eliminate the potential for future incidents unless a proper technical review process is followed."
In response to those concerns, regulators have issued new guidelines spelling out what qualifies as "complex projects," such as gas main replacements or projects involving high-pressure distribution systems.
Attorney General Maura Healey's office has signaled that it plans to conduct its own review of the proposed regulations.
In a filing, Healey's office says it will hire engineering consultants and gas safety experts to go over the plans before state regulators sign off on them.
Federal regulators say the Sept. 13, 2018, Merrimack Valley gas disaster was preceded by a series of glaring mistakes by the utility, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, in the years preceding the incident. Those included shoddy record keeping.
A National Transportation Safety Board report concluded the company had a "weak engineering management" system, information about safety sensors was missing from construction plans, and company officials scrambled to find shut-off valves as more than 130 fires and explosions ripped through the region.
The federal board was highly critical of Columbia Gas, suggesting the tragedy could have been prevented if better safety systems were in place.
At the time of the gas fires, Massachusetts was one of 30 states that exempted utilities from having a licensed engineer review plans for construction work.
The Department of Public Utilities will hold a public hearing on the proposed regulations on April 8. The hearing will be live-streamed and can be viewed at zoom.us/j/93992307643
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.