BOSTON — The state's antiquated natural gas system has myriad safety risks that are being compounded by gaps in regulatory oversight and other deficiencies, according to a new independent report.

The report, called "Rolling the Dice," was produced by Gas Leak Allies, a coalition of two dozens organizations and researchers focused on reducing methane emissions from leaking pipes.

Nathan Phillips, a Boston University professor and lead author of the study, said despite steps to improve gas safety the system has numerous "inherent vulnerabilities and risks" that put the public at risk.

"Overall, there's been a lot of talk but very little action," he said. "What happened in the Merrimack Valley could happen in any city or town in the commonwealth. There are still clear and present dangers."

The report notes there were more than 16,000 gas leaks in the state last year -- an average of more than 40 new leaks each day -- along tens of thousands of miles of distribution lines.

"These leaks can lead to potentially hazardous situations for millions of residents, resulting in explosive incidents, either directly or due to proximate causes such as attempts at repair," the report said.

The risks from the failing infrastructure are compounded by major gaps in regulatory oversight and utility management, inadequate staffing and safety processes, as well as a lack of equipment, the report found.

Meanwhile, cities and towns aren't prepared to deal with a catastrophic gas emergency like the one that rocked the Merrimack Valley last year, it noted.

Another issue is the largely centralized system of distribution, with gas flowing into the state from only three high-pressure transmission pipelines.

"A breakdown anywhere on the line causes an outage to all downstream customers," the report noted.

Among the report's recommendations are for stronger oversight of gas systems by the state Department of Public Utilities to enforce current regulations, tightened emergency protocols and better data collection by utilities for municipalities and customers about gas leaks and deficiencies in the system.

The report calls for halting new pipeline projects and fixing the worst leaks while accelerating a transition to renewable energy — a strategy the authors refer to as "triage and transition."

The report also cited 24 reported incidents in the state over the past 18 years, including an attempt to fix a gas leak in Roslindale in December 2018 that triggered a fire lasting for two days. It concluded that the incidents "demonstrate persistent, embedded safety risks" to the gas system.

"While pipe replacement could seem like the safer course, incidents can also occur during replacement, particularly due to human error and lack of redundant protocols or inspections, as happened in the Merrimack Valley gas disaster," its authors wrote. "It’s just luck -- or a roll of the dice -- that more people have not died or suffered injury and property loss."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. 

 

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