The Merrimack Valley gas disaster was a mere four years ago. It is far too soon for the industry to treat it as a distant memory.

Yet that seems to be the approach, as industry lobbyists push back against a series of reforms aimed at ensuring such a cataclysmic event doesn’t happen again.

On Sept. 13, 2018, overpressurized gas lines set off a cascade of explosions throughout Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, injuring 21 people and killing 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, who died when a chimney fell on top of his parked car. About 8,000 people were displaced after more than 100 homes burned. More were condemned in the weeks and months after the explosions, their occupants forced to seek shelter elsewhere.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board laid the blame with Columbia Gas, citing weak management and poor oversight that led to a cast iron pipe being improperly abandoned.

The rebuild after the disaster has been measured in years, not months, in the Merrimack Valley. Some families and businesses have yet to recover.

Both the federal and state governments responded quickly and decisively after the explosions, passing legislation and updating codes aimed at making sure the Merrimack Valley disaster didn’t occur elsewhere.

Now, as the new rules are being written and deadlines near for the gas industry to make safety upgrades, its lobbyists are speaking out, saying there isn’t enough time or money to do the mandated work.

Which of the new regulations does the gas industry have problems with, you ask? Pretty much all of them.

As Statehouse reporter Christian M. Wade revealed Monday, industry groups have complained about pressure-monitoring and so-called “slam shut” safety devices as well as burying transmission lines and properly training workers.

Jose Costa, president of the Northeast Gas Association, an industry trade group, testified recently that meeting the two-year deadline for the safety retrofits would be “extremely challenging if not impossible” because of the number of stations that need to be upgraded.

“Requiring this additional layer of protection for all existing distribution stations will be challenging for operators and is likely to impact their ability to comply with proposed regulation,” Costa wrote in testimony to the state Department of Public Utilities.

Others were critical of changes that call for recertification of gas workers – such as welders – and managers.

National Grid and Eversource wrote in testimony that those rules would have “little or no actual safety value.”


As the NTSB found, it was weak management and on-site inattention that ultimately led to the Merrimack Valley explosions. And the state and local legislators have tried for years to get gas distribution companies to repair the thousands of leaks in pipes across the state. Massachusetts reported nearly 29,000 such leaks in 2020. About 5,288 were classified as “Grade 1,” meaning they should be repaired immediately. It was just last October that the state fined National Grid $1.6 million for the poor condition of pipelines at dozens of bridge crossings.

All of this makes the appeals of the gas industry to delay the state regulations while the federal regulations are being written seem less like a plea for clarity and more like foot-dragging.

It has been four short years since the Merrimack Valley blast. The 50,000 people evacuated in its aftermath haven’t forgotten. Neither should those responsible for making sure it doesn’t happen again.

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