Rondon gas safety bill passes U.S. Senate

CARL RUSSO/Staff file photo/The gas explosions and fires of Sept. 13, 2018, destroyed this house on Chickering Road in Lawrence, killing Leonel Rondon, 18.

BOSTON — A proposal to require monitors to supervise work on natural gas systems has passed the U.S. Senate as part of a pipeline safety bill.

The measure named after Leonel Rondon, the Lawrence teenager killed Sept. 13, 2018, in Merrimack Valley gas disaster, calls for other safety measures such as the instillation of pressure monitoring devices so that utility employees can quickly shut off gas flow in an emergency, among other provisions.

The bill's primary sponsor, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Malden, said measure is aimed at averting future disasters.

"The natural gas explosions were preventable, caused by carelessness, lax oversight, and the prioritization of profit over public safety," Markey said in a statement. "The passage of this legislation through the Senate is a critical step toward accountability for bad actors and safer systems for all."

A similar proposal was filed in the House of Representative by Reps. Lori Trahan, D-Westford, and Seth Moulton, D-Salem, but hasn't come up for a vote.

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

The 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.

The total cost of the disaster to Columbia Gas, its parent company and insurers has been estimated at more than $1.6 billion.

Approval of the measure comes as progress on many gas safety bills on Beacon Hill has sputtered amid the pandemic response. Dozens of bills calling for beefed up state regulations and better monitoring of natural gas systems are languishing in legislative committees.

The state House of Representatives tucked a proposal from Rep. Frank Moran, D-Lawrence, into a sweeping climate change bill it approved last week. Moran's plan calls for requiring state regulators to improve monitoring of gas lines, requiring utilities to have enough staff to respond to emergencies, and accelerating repairs to gas leaks.

Gov. Charlie Baker has also taken steps to ensure the safety of the state's gas pipelines. He signed a new law last year requiring gas projects be reviewed by a certified professional engineer — also a recommendation from federal regulators.

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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