DPU presses Natl. Grid on alleged violations

Utility says it is confident in overall approach to safety

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

THE DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC UTILITIES found 29 instances in which National Grid may have violated federal gas pipeline safety regulations since early July and regulators said further investigation or other action may be necessary.

The alleged violations include things like a manhole left open overnight to vent a gas leak in Brookline, improper investigation of gas leaks in Lowell, operating a chainsaw while gas was in the atmosphere in Charlestown, drilling holes directly over a gas main in Malden, and failure to investigate or remediate a serious gas leak in Roxbury.

In a letter to National Grid’s director of gas pipeline safety and compliance last week, the DPU wrote that, based on its review, “it appears that National Grid may have failed to follow proper procedures on several occasions and may be in violation of … the federal pipeline safety regulations.” The DPU summarized 29 alleged violations dating to July 1.

The DPU said the “information and evidence” of the alleged violations came from “concerned citizens,” though the claims overlap with a list of roughly 100 alleged violations that the unions representing locked-out National Grid gas workers have submitted to the DPU.

“We look forward to providing detailed information about our work and safety practices at the 29 job sites the two unions have shared with the DPU. We will work with the DPU to satisfy this information request within the provided timeline,” Christine Milligan, spokesperson for National Grid Massachusetts, said. “We are confident in our overall approach to safety, but appreciate the opportunity to review any concerns so that we can determine if there is an opportunity to further strengthen our relentless commitment to safety in every job we perform.”

The DPU gave National Grid 30 days to respond to the allegations or “we will move forward with a compliance action or additional investigation against National Grid.”

Since late June, about 1,250 National Grid gas workers represented by United Steelworkers Locals 12003 and 12012 have been locked out of work by National Grid amid union negotiations. The unions have since argued that customers are less safe with National Grid’s replacement workers on the job.

“Customers should know that we have confidence in every employee and contractor working on our gas system. We regularly conduct appropriate reviews and investigations of our worksites and, if any safety concerns are noted or observed, we take prompt and appropriate action — just as we do with our unionized employees,” Milligan said. “In addition to our own internal reviews, the DPU sends inspectors to the job sites to perform detailed reviews of our work.”

National Grid said its contingency workforce has completed 25,000 jobs since the lockout began on June 25.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo put pressure on National Grid on Tuesday, asking the Baker administration to put a price tag on the utility’s worker lockout, requesting an analysis of the public benefit costs of workers needing health care and other assistance.

In a letter to Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan, DeLeo asked the governor’s budget office to estimate the daily, weekl,y and monthly costs at MassHealth associated with increased caseloads driven by workers who lost their health coverage as a result of the lockout. The speaker also asked Heffernan to produce cost estimates of food or cash assistance accessed by gas workers through the Department of Transitional Assistance, lost income or sales taxes to the state, and the impact on the unemployment insurance trust fund.

“As the lockout enters its 99th day, I am increasingly troubled by how a prolonged impasse affects workers and the safety of our natural gas distribution system,” DeLeo wrote. “Further, I am particularly concerned that the lockout will have a detrimental impact on the economic health and budgetary outlook for the Commonwealth.”

DeLeo in mid-September called on National Grid to end the lockout and for the utility and the Steelworkers Union to return to the contract negotiating table. DeLeo repeated that call in his letter to Heffernan on Tuesday, but also asked the administration to project out the potential cost to the state should the lockout continue into 2019.

Last week, in the wake of gas explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley and as regulators met with union representatives to discuss gas system safety, the DPU announced that an outside evaluator will be hired to study the state and the safety of natural gas infrastructure across Massachusetts.

The evaluator, who will be picked on an expedited basis with consultation from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, is going to be tasked with examining “the physical integrity and safety of the natural gas distribution system and the operation and maintenance policies and practices of all natural gas distribution companies operating within the Commonwealth,” DPU said.

Meet the Author
An official with the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said Tuesday that the process to select the evaluator is ongoing.

Matt  Murphy contributed to this report.