N. Grid spending stable, but hookups, leak repairs down

Numbers show the fallout from locking out union workers


AFTER LOCKING OUT roughly 1,200 union gas workers in late June, National Grid has spent about the same amount money as in previous years on labor, materials, and other expenses but fixed fewer gas leaks and hooked up 50 percent fewer new gas customers, according to data provided to the state.

The volume of work done by replacement gas contractors for National Grid is down considerably during the lockout period compared to the three previous years, according to the information, while costs for the utility have climbed 2 percent.

The information provided to the Department of Public Utilities earlier this month also confirms what Gov. Charlie Baker has fretted about with regard to residential and commercial customers being unable to complete new gas hookups.

The 712 new customers connected to existing gas mains were down 50 percent from a year ago when 1,427 new customers were hooked up to gas between July and September, which was the same number as in 2015 and up from the 1,167 new customers in 2016.

“This is creating legitimate issues for developers, for businesses and for homeowners around the commonwealth,” Baker told reporters on Oct. 1.

The News Service obtained a copy of National Grid’s response to an information request sent to the company by the DPU on Sept. 28. Regulators demanded that the company provide staffing, cost, and service data for the three months since the lockout began and corresponding information for the same time frame in 2015 through 2017.

The response showed that from July through September, National Grid inspected 9,102 gas leaks, roughly on par with what it had done the previous three years during the same three-month periods.

However, far fewer leaks were repaired.

The 1,193 gas leaks repaired by National Grid from July through September amounted to 595 fewer than the lowest total during the previous three years and 1,326 fewer than the 2,519 leaks repaired in July, August, and September of 2017.

The 16,406 feet of installed gas main was also well short of the 72,074 feet installed last year, and National Grid performed 354 fewer pipe construction jobs than last year. The number of crews working were also way down, from 432 one-person customer metering crews in 2017 to 199 this year, and from 271 three-person construction and maintenance crews last year to 116 in late summer this year.

Despite all of this, National Grid spent over $241 million on labor, materials, and in a category labeled “other,” all up by a total of $4.3 million from last year during this time frame.

National Grid spokeswoman Christine Milligan said that despite the fewer number of leak repairs, the utility has “remained in compliance,” and has been repairing all Grade 1 and Grade 2 leaks, as required by law.

“The decision to lockout our employees was not an easy one, but one we felt we needed to make in order to maintain the safety and reliability of our gas system in the 85 communities served by these two unions,” Milligan wrote in an email. “Also to be clear … to us, none of this is about the short term. For National Grid, this is about preserving the future reasonable rates for our customers.”

The reduction in new service hookups could also be exacerbated by the timing of the labor dispute.

Most cities and towns have winter gas work moratoriums that begin in November and end in April. National Grid says is has tried to make potential new customers aware of the winter deadline, and has created a priority list of customers unable to convert to alternative fuel for whom a delay would be a hardship.

“It’s kind of staggering when you see what the costs are and the amount of work is down,” said John Buonopane, president of United Steel Workers Local 12012, one of the two locked out unions.

Buonopane suggested one reason might be the amount of money National Grid has had to spend on hotel rooms, meals, extra police details and crews more than double the size of what would be necessary with union workers to complete a job.

“There’s a lot of different costs associated with this lockout that they wouldn’t be spending any money on if we were working,” Buonopane said. “All these costs in my opinion, are going to get passed on to the ratepayers.”

National Grid said that customers will not be asked to pay “unreasonable incremental operating costs.” “Customers are paying only for the service they are receiving and are not/will not be bearing responsibility for extra costs incurred to support work continuation efforts,” Milligan said.

The data turned over to the Department of Public Utilities reflects a period from July through September from before the state intervened and ordered a moratorium on all non-emergency and non-compliance work in the 85 communities impacted by the lockout. The moratorium was ordered following an incident in Woburn during which a supervisor allowed excess pressure to be introduced into the system.

The News Service last week requested a copy of National Grid’s information request response, but was denied by the state due to the ongoing nature of DPU’s review into the impact of the lockout.

When told Monday that the News Service had independently obtained the documents, spokesman Peter Lorenz said DPU is reviewing National Grid’s response and “has requested additional information from the company regarding safety protocols and operational procedures in response to the incident that occurred in Woburn.”

“The Department’s moratorium on all work, except for emergency and compliance work, across National Grid’s entire service territory remains in place, and the Department is in the process of hiring an Independent Evaluator to assess the safety of pipeline infrastructure throughout Massachusetts out of an abundance of caution to ensure accountability and safety,” Lorenz said.

National Grid has defended the safety of relying on trained contractors to continue performing gas work during the lockout, but the union has argued that having workers not accustomed to working daily on the system introduces an element of risk.

While contract negotiations have continued, Buonopane said the unions representing gas workers have offered to continue working under the terms of the old collective bargaining agreement.

National Grid said that unsuccessful attempts in the past, including in 2016, to reach a compromise over health insurance and 401(k) plans for new hires made the lockout a necessary step for the company.

“We have made it clear from the beginning that, while this work continuation effort is underway, we would be focusing on emergency and state-mandated compliance work. We regret that the past 17 weeks have yet to yield an agreement with the two unions,” Milligan said.

The two sides met most recently on Friday to continue negotiations, and will sit down next on Oct. 29.

Though National Grid said it was disappointed the unions could not meet again sooner, the company said it has been “somewhat encouraged that we now have had two consecutive weeks of negotiations that have included constructive conversations.”

Buonopane agreed that some progress had been made.

“There were some positive steps, I guess I could say, but the big issues haven’t been addressed by the company. We still maintain they can end the lockout,” he said.

Meet the Author

Matt Murphy

State House News Service
House Speaker Robert DeLeo has also called on National Grid to end the lockout immediately, while Baker has said that he hopes the DPU moratorium on non-emergency work will facilitate a contract agreement.

“I think it’s really important that those guys and gals get back to work,” Baker said. “I think one of the ways we get them back to work is by demonstrating to National Grid that they’re not going to be able to do any more work outside their statutory obligations until they put them back to work.”