Gas workers call for improved safety

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. Bills pushing for new gas-related safety measures have languished at the Statehouse.

A coalition of natural gas workers is calling on lawmakers to pass gas safety proposals that have languished on Beacon Hill during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter to legislative leaders, members of the New England Gas Workers Alliance urge them to include a number of gas safety measures in a pair of climate change bills now being considered by legislative conference committees.

The group, which represents unionized natural gas workers and pipe fitters, noted that the Merrimack Valley gas fires and explosions two years ago resulted in policy changes that have improved gas safety but other "critical systemic reforms ... remain unfinished."

"These changes will not only improve public safety and better protect our first responders and gas workers, they will also act to significantly reduce accidental releases of natural gas into our environment," the letter reads. "These accidental emissions from high pressure pipes into the air can be significant sources of carbon pollution and are largely preventable."

The alliance wants to ramp up fines for utilities and gas companies that violate safety and emergency preparedness regulations and standards.

"Through our experience in the Merrimack Valley it was also evident that the maximum fines were far too small given the impact on our communities," the letter reads.

Dozens of gas safety bills have languished since the COVID-19 outbreak, despite lawmakers extending formal sessions through the end of the year.

Among them is a proposal filed last year by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, requiring gas companies to have experienced technicians on job sites to monitor gas pressure also hasn't been taken up.

Meanwhile, a proposal filed by Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, that would require the state Department of Public Utilities to set requirements for promptly restoring service following an interruption. Gas companies could be fined up to $2 million per day if they miss that deadline, under his plan.

The bill has been sitting in a committee since April, when the pandemic stalled much of the Legislature's agenda.

Another bill, filed by Rep. Frank Moran, D-Lawrence, and backed by dozens of lawmakers, would require regulators to come up with more stringent rules to monitor gas lines, require utilities to have enough staff to respond to emergencies, and accelerate repairs to gas leaks.

The bills were filed in response to the Sept. 13, 2018, disaster that killed a teenager, injured dozens and damaged more than 130 homes in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence.

The Senate passed a climate change bill in January that calls for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but it rejected amendments related to gas safety. The House passed its own climate change bill and included some gas safety provisions. Differences between the proposals are being hammered out by a special committee.

In Congress, Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Lori Trahan filed legislation — named after Leonel Rondon, the Lawrence teenager killed in the Merrimack Valley disaster — that would require on-site monitoring during work on gas pipes so that employees can shut off gas flow in an emergency. That bill, too, has been stalled since it was introduced last year.

Kathy Laflash, president of the gas workers alliance, said the group is also calling for stronger whistleblower protections for those reporting safety violations and to require state regulators to act quickly on complaints against gas companies.

"Much has been done to protect the public since that terrible day in September 2018," Laflash said. "More can be done, and we hope the Legislature can pass these provisions before the end of the session."

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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