Fourteen months have passed since fires and explosions roared through the Merrimack Valley, as the result of failure piled upon failure at the region’s natural gas utility, Columbia Gas. And while much has happened since the disaster in terms of roadwork, repairs, legal settlements, investigations and proposals for new legislation, it’s striking just how little the law has changed.
That much was clear Tuesday, as most of the area’s delegation to Beacon Hill turned up for a hearing of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. The lawmakers were there to speak on a number of plans to address the state’s gas infrastructure, including bills aimed at safety reforms, averting future disasters and holding all utilities accountable for their communication and emergency procedures.
Advancing these ideas isn’t just about scoring political points or extracting a pound of flesh from the state’s utilities in light of what happened last year. Nor is it only about restoring peace of mind to people living in south Lawrence, Andover and North Andover — if that’s even possible at this point.
It’s really meant to protect the interests — and safety — of everyone from the North Shore to the Berkshires to the Cape.
To date, Gov. Charlie Baker has advocated, and signed, a law mandating that gas utilities have certified engineers sign off on construction plans, reversing a rule previously adopted in Massachusetts, and 29 other states. He hired a consultant to review the state’s natural gas systems.
The Department of Public Utilities has added 11 certified inspectors to its gas pipeline division and is in the process of bringing on other engineers. Federal safety officials made a number of pointed recommendations to Columbia Gas about its procedures, to which the utility has responded.
What’s left are so many loose ends and so many big-picture questions about the future of our natural gas infrastructure. Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D- Marblehead, who has advocated for many specific safety recommendations, also raises valid, broader concerns about the time and effort being expended on methane.
“In those pipelines under our feet travel a gas known as methane, which is not only highly explosive but a potent greenhouse gas,” she told the committee, according to Statehouse reporter Christian M. Wade’s account. “So, not only are we spending billions of dollars to put ourselves in danger, we are robbing our children of a livable future.
“When you think about it,” she added, “that makes no sense.”
It’s a valid point that warrants serious attention and thought, especially as the state considers its long-term energy policy. But, in the short term, lawmakers shouldn’t let that distract from implementing smart changes to improve the safety and transparency of the underground system we live with today.
An example of that approach is the bill filed by Ehrlich and Rep. Christina Minicucci, D-North Andover, and supported by dozens of other lawmakers, to address concerns such as a better accounting of leaks in the natural gas system while also moving the state toward greater use of renewable energy sources.
“Our gas infrastructure is old and it’s failing,” Minicucci said. “Gas companies have not kept up with maintenance, and when work is completed, it is done in a vacuum without sufficient oversight or responsibility.”
Another important reform comes from Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, and Rep. Frank Moran, D-Lawrence, also focused on requirements to repair leaks while mandating that utilities promptly call for help from their peers in times of emergency.
“We cannot have gas lines exploding,” said Finegold. “We need to do everything we can to make sure something like this never happens again.”
Other lawmakers, not just from the North Shore and Merrimack Valley but around the state, have supported their proposals or filed measures of their own.
There is a looming task ahead in organizing and streamlining all of these pieces of legislation, some of which certainly overlap. As Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, suggested to the panel, the best outcome is a “comprehensive bill of sorts that will help our region and this commonwealth.”
Yet, as important as it is to move through that process deliberately, issues with our natural gas infrastructure are not going away. In fact, it was just days after the one-year anniversary of the disaster that a serious gas leak forced the evacuation of south Lawrence.
The next emergency can happen at anytime. It’s critical to everyone living in the state that the Legislature act promptly to address and implement these needed reforms.