The final chapter of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts is being punctuated by dollar signs.
The utility, in the process of being sold to Eversource for $1.1 billion, continues to pay out fines and settlements in the long shadow of its September 2018 disaster in the Merrimack Valley.
Attorney General Maura Healey last week announced a $56 million agreement in which Columbia Gas will wipe out debt of about 28,000 low-income customers and fund energy efficiency programs, among other initiatives. That followed closely a judge’s sign-off on the company’s plea to having violated the federal pipeline safety law — which came with a $53 million fine.
Yet, despite waves of money emanating from the company, when it turns over its local operation by Nov. 1, in line with the terms of its plea agreement, the system it hands over won’t be without problems.
There are 1,946 of them, to be exact.
That’s the number of gas leaks, small to large, spread throughout the company’s operation in the state as of the end of 2019, according to a recent report by the Home Energy Efficiency Team. For all of the money Columbia Gas has spent of late, and all the work to upgrade its systems in the gas disaster’s aftermath, its infrastructure remains inherently flawed.
The study, which drew upon data reported by the state’s utilities, pointed to 15,728 leaks in gas lines throughout the state at the end of last year. Most were of the “Grade 3” variety, not considered an imminent danger.
Still, no gas leak is good. They threaten the safety of the environment and people. And there were, on average, 45 to be found in each city and town in Massachusetts at the end of 2019.
Newburyport had 44 at the end of the year, Amesbury had 22, Salisbury had 25 and Rowley had eight.
The Merrimack Valley gas disaster, which illustrates more seriously than anything the dangers of natural gas, was not caused by one of these many leaks. The disastrous overpressurization of gas lines in September 2018 stemmed from failures of record keeping, engineering and adequate safety protocols around a work site in Lawrence.
It’s evident the state’s gas infrastructure will remain rickety, leaky and woefully inadequate.
Four months from now, even after the entity known as Columbia Gas of Massachusetts is no more, the state must keep up its focus on the gas utilities and force them to speed repairs of these broken pipes.