Lawmakers weigh 'nuclear option' for Columbia Gas

CARL RUSSO/Staff file photo/Columbia Gas provided a claims center in the parking lot of St. Patrick’s Church in Lawrence on Monday. The center was organized to help the South Lawrence residents and business owners impacted by Sept. 27’s gas leak.

BOSTON — Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera doesn’t mince words when asked if he thinks Columbia Gas of Massachusetts should be allowed to continue serving his city.

"Frankly, I think they should lose their license to operate in the state," the Democrat says. "They've proven that they aren't capable of serving our community."

Rivera said last week's gas leak in Lawrence that resulted in service shutoffs and forced evacuations has solidified his view that the company's franchise should be taken away.

Such a move, however, would require approval by the state Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker and, so far, no legislation to do so has been filed.

But lawmakers who represent the Merrimack Valley say they are increasingly leaning toward the nuclear option.

"I've been understanding until now, but I'm running out of patience," said state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, whose home and law offices were among thousands that lost service during last year's gas fires. "There is a pattern of behavior that is very concerning, and I think we need to question whether this company can handle the job."

Finegold said stripping a state-regulated utility of its license would be "unprecedented" but the move would likely be supported by many of the communities the company serves.

"I can tell you that if we wanted to pursue something like that, there would be a broad base of support," he said.

Rep. Frank Moran, D-Lawrence, has been among the most vocal critics of Columbia Gas following last year's gas fires, at one point calling for its license to be revoked.

He said that while the utility has taken some steps to improve amid increased state scrutiny, it still has a long way to go to restore public trust.

"We need to hold this company accountable," Moran said. "Most importantly, we need to make sure this doesn't happen again, here or anywhere in the state."

State shuts work down

On Thursday, the state Department of Utilities ordered Columbia to stop all non-emergency work on gas pipelines as a result of "troubling issues" identified by state regulators.

DPU has also ordered the company to submit plans, by next week, to address 2,220 old service lines abandoned during its systemwide pipeline upgrade in Lawrence.

The utility faces millions of dollars in fines if it fails to complete additional safety measures following a major gas leak that prompted evacuations last week.

NiSource, Columbia Gas' parent company, isn't challenging the directives and said in a statement that the action was the "appropriate and responsible course of action."

"We recognize many have lost their sense of security and we take responsibility for that," CEO Joe Hamrock said Thursday. "While we have taken significant safety steps over the past year, we fully understand that restoring and maintaining the trust and confidence of all our customers and officials will be a continuing process."

Federal regulators say the gas disaster that shook Lawrence, Andover and North Andover on Sept. 13, 2018, was preceded by a series of glaring mistakes by the utility in the years preceding the incident, including shoddy record-keeping.

The National Transportation Safety Board's latest report concluded that Columbia Gas had a "weak engineering management" system, where information about safety sensors was missing from construction plans, and company officials scrambled to locate shut-off valves as more than 130 fires and explosions ripped through the region.

The board was highly critical of Columbia Gas, suggesting the tragedy that killed a teen and injured hundreds could have been prevented if better safety systems were in place.

"The project was not done right. It was done wrong," NTSB chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said during a NTSB meeting last week. "The results ... were catastrophic."

Thousands of residents and businesses in the three communities were left without natural gas service for heat and hot water,  for months in some cases.

North Andover Town Manager Melissa Rodrigues said residents in her community "have suffered over the last year due to the actions and incompetencies of Columbia Gas."

"The events and findings of the last few weeks have memorialized that further action must be taken," she said in an emailed statement. "I appreciate the support and quick response of the Department of Public Utilities, and I am hopeful that this will just be the beginning of greater scrutiny and additional protections for our communities."

'We're all done'

An effort to strip the company of its license could prove a long slog through the Legislature, where it would face opposition from an industry that holds a lot of sway on Beacon Hill.

It would also likely face legal challenges.

And it's not clear which company would take over the service territory, if Columbia Gas loses its license. The gas company's service area is surrounded by National Grid, but Eversource, another large natural gas provider, was called in by the state to oversee Columbia's emergency response to last year's disaster.

Rep. Christina Minicucci, D-North Andover, said right now lawmakers are focused on ensuring that the company makes communities affected by last year's disaster whole, and that outstanding claims for damages to homes and businesses are honored, before pursuing harsher actions.

But after that?

"I think we're all done with Columbia Gas," she said.

Minicucci said it's also important for lawmakers to move ahead with bills that seek to improve oversight and the safety of natural gas distribution systems in Massachusetts.

"We've been letting gas companies run amok because the regulations and oversight hasn't been there," she said. "Until we deal with the regulatory issues, nothing will change."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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