JEERS to good intentions wrapped in the wrong packages.
NiSource, the energy company that owns Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, recently announced a new chief safety adviser for the utility with 320,000 customers, including 8,600 in the Merrimack Valley. Nick Stravopoulos, with more than four decades of experience in the field, will answer directly to the president of NiSource, not the local president of Columbia Gas. Presumably that means he’ll be a check to any corner-cutting impulses by local operators, which is a good thing.
The bad thing is Stravopoulos resume, specifically his most recent employer, Pacific Gas & Electric.
One of the country’s largest utilities, PG&E was just in the news for cutting power to 800,000 homes and businesses in California due to the potential its transmission lines could start a wildfire. This appears to be what occurred last year, when a century-old tower is suspected to have started the wildfire that wiped out the town of Paradise. But that’s on the electric side.
On the gas side, the utility last year agreed to a $65 million fine after an investigation into its handling of gas records. PG&E employees were accused of falsifying reports on calls to locate and mark pipelines. The case was chilling in light of PG&E’s recent history: In 2010, one of its gas lines exploded outside San Francisco, killing eight people and injuring 58 others.
Stravopoulos joined PG&E a year after the devastating explosion and is credited with helping to reorganize the company in the aftermath. Seven years later, he was promoted to chief operating officer. He and other company leaders told the San Francisco Chronicle that his retirement at the end of last year had nothing to do with the recent investigation and fines.
If true then maybe Stravopoulos, who worked as an industry executive in New England before going west, is the fixer that Columbia Gas needs. A dark cloud has followed the utility since its disaster last fall that caused fires and explosions throughout the Merrimack Valley. In late September, a gas leak prompted the evacuation of a South Lawrence neighborhood. Lately the company has been reinspecting old lines it replaced in a hurry last year, under growing pressure from state regulators.
But it’s hard to shake the stigma of PG&E. Mark Toney, director of Utility Reform Network, a California consumer watchdog, said NiSource’s decision to hire him as a safety adviser is stunning. “He is not someone that should be overseeing gas pipeline safety,” he told Statehouse reporter Christian Wade.
What message does that send to Columbia Gas customers — especially those who’ve been traumatized, in some cases multiple times, by their gas company?
CHEERS to happy, and productive, accidents.
Such was the case when Stuart McNeil, retired from the ad business, and John Tierney, a former race car driver and union agent, started bringing food nearing the end of its shelf life from the Stop & Shop in North Andover to the community coffee in Andover on Saturdays. The grocery runs benefited veterans, senior citizens and other people who simply needed a hand.
The store’s manager, Dom Mondi, also played a key part, according to reporter Paul Tennant’s account. He was the one who pointed out food that was still good, even though it had been taken off the shelves, and might be useful to someone.
Over time — McNeil and Tierney have been doing this for about 10 years now — the number of grocery stores involved in their donation has expanded to include three Stop & Shop locations, including Andover's. Their distribution has grown, as well, to involve nearly 20 organizations that help pass the food along to their clients.
Tierney and McNeil say they’re helping some 24,000 Merrimack Valley residents by delivering nonperishable items, such as crackers, cookies, soups and pasta.
The beneficiaries of their work would doubtless face some tough decisions about what and whether to eat — if they didn’t just go hungry — were it not for their efforts.
McNeil and Tierney call their partnership the “Accidental Food Bank” in a nod to the serendipity behind the operation.
Even though it wasn’t planned, their food distribution does a world of good. And their example — a couple of guys who saw a need, responded to it and have stuck with it — should serve as an inspiration to others.