BOSTON — A gas pipeline safety proposal, named after a Lawrence teenager killed during the Merrimack Valley disaster, has become a flashpoint in the contentious U.S. Senate race.

The measure named after Leonel Rondon calls for safety measures such as increased monitoring of gas work, improved public communications and devices that monitor gas pressure so that utility workers can quickly shut off gas flow in an emergency.

Several provisions of the bill, filed by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Malden in April, were tucked into a pipeline safety measure that passed the Senate two weeks ago.

But Rep. Joe Kennedy, who is seeking to unseat Markey in the upcoming Democratic primary, says the measure working its way through Congress is lacking and suggests that Markey agreed to less stringent provisions to get the bill passed in the Republican-controlled Senate.

"The adjustments he made watered down that bill,"' Kennedy said during a recent interview. "I'm not sure why that happened."

Kennedy said changes to the Senate bill lessened the qualifications for engineers who would be required to review natural gas projects before work begins. He also cited weakened provisions requiring gas companies to communicate better with first-responders and the public and update gas safety plans more frequently.

Markey's campaign blasted Kennedy's claims as a political stunt and accused the congressman of mudslinging.

"It is shameful that Congressman Kennedy cares more about launching craven negative political attacks against Senator Markey than about protecting the people of Merrimack Valley from natural gas disasters," Markey campaign spokeswoman Liz Vlock said in a statement. "That he would try to undermine passage of a comprehensive update of pipeline safety regulations for the sake of his campaign is appalling."

Kennedy, a Newton Democrat, raised the issue in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi two weeks ago, calling on her to push for a "strong public safety bill" in her chamber's version of the Rondon bill, which hasn't come up for a vote.

Kennedy's Aug. 6 letter, which doesn't mention Markey by name, suggests that "compromise language" in the Senate bill "leaves communities vulnerable."

Neither Reps. Lori Trahan, D-Westford, and Seth Moulton, D-Salem, who filed the Rondon bill in the House, signed onto Kennedy's letter.

And Kennedy's office apparently didn't reach out to either of them to sign it, as is often the practice among members of the state's congressional delegation.

Trahan's office issued a one-sentence statement noting the freshman congresswoman has worked with both Markey and Kennedy on pipeline safety and "has been in touch" with House leadership "many times" to push for "the goals" of the Rondon bill.

Increased monitoring of gas work was one recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board in the aftermath of the Sept. 13, 2018 disaster. Investigators found that the disaster had been preceded by years of glaring mistakes by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, including shoddy record keeping.

On Sept. 13, a swell of over-pressurized gas through lines beneath Lawrence, Andover and North Andover fueled fires and explosions that destroyed five homes, damaged 131 properties, injured three firefighters and 19 civilians, and forced the evacuations of 50,000 people.

A Rondon family attorney said in a statement that the family "looks forward to the passage of the Lionel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act, inclusive of measures sufficient to protect all citizens in the United States from the horrors of the explosions that rocked the Merrimack Valley and killed their precious son."

"We applaud all congressional members who work to make certain that such a catastrophe never happens again and remember Leonel as we approach the second anniversary of his tragic passing," Doug Sheff, of Sheff Law in Boston, said in a statement.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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