Gas worker union chief hails DPU’s new attitude

Agency is now following up on issues quickly, firmly

TWO YEARS AGO  this month the Merrimack Valley was rocked by gas explosions that tragically killed one young man and destroyed dozens of houses and businesses, disrupting lives for months.

For those of us who work in the industry, this disaster affirmed some of our concerns about gas safety, and pushed us to step up demands that the state and utilities work harder to protect the public, and workers like ourselves. As the spotlight has moved away from the explosion, and the pandemic has come to understandably dominate political leadership and the public’s attention, there has been some justifiable concern that we have taken our focus off improvements in gas safety. The good news? That is not the case.

In fact, quietly and behind the scenes, the state Department of Public Utilities (DPU), working with utilities and gas worker unions, has put in place some serious reforms that should help us avoid a repeat of the Merrimack Valley tragedy. Many of these reforms and improvements have been long sought by the men and women who work everyday on gas lines across the state.

First off, the state has dramatically increased the number of inspectors focused on gas lines, connections, and valves to detect damage before there are problems. Before the explosions there were only two inspectors available to perform field inspections for the entire natural gas system. Over the last year the DPU has increased that number by nearly a factor of 10 – there are now 19 inspectors in the field. In addition, the DPU has upped the inspection of new construction work to be certain that work is done right and safely from the outset, and three inspectors are dedicated to damage prevention. According to DPU officials at a recent meeting, overall staffing is up 300 percent.

Finally, the DPU has committed to a new, faster timeline for investigation of complaints – long a problem with the DPU where serious and worrisome complaints could sit for months without action – and to more oversight of work plans intended to bring construction and repairs into compliance with state regulations.

There is more to be done.

In the months after the Merrimack Valley explosions the Baker administration hired outside consultants Dynamic Risk to investigate the causes of the tragedy, the response, and ways in which potential problems could be fixed. From that study have emerged recommendations pending in the Legislature in the final months of the session aimed at improving oversight of our natural gas infrastructure, preventing accidental emissions, and improving pipeline safety for workers and the residents of Massachusetts.

The legislation would also improve public utility operations by addressing a concerning trend in the gas industry: the reliance on less expensive private contractors by public utility companies to increase profits. The experience and training that contracted workers receive can vary significantly, and many contractors are only in these roles on a temporary basis and do not stay long enough or are trained well enough in comparison to full-time dedicated career utility employees.

A few days prior to the two-year anniversary earlier this month, a group of us met with DPU officials to go over the steps taken since the release of the Dynamic Risk report. For too many years, those of us who work in the field on natural gas saw the state ignore our concerns, fail to follow up on problems, take utility assurances at face value, and in general lack real accountability to the public. As some of the DPU’s most strident critics, we want to say we are seeing real change.

DPU officials, several of them brought on since the explosion, detailed robust inspection schedules, immediate follow-up on problems, writeups where utilities had failed, investigations on proper training, management oversight and follow-through on work. Most of all there was a new attitude. It was refreshing, after so many years where complaints went without response, and where few or no details were ever provided on the work being done in the field, to hear how diligently DPU has followed up on any issues – and how quickly and firmly they have dealt with any problems they see with utility work.

Meet the Author

Kathy Laflash

President, New England Gas Workers Alliance
No one can go back and stop the terrible loss of life and damage of two years ago. But it is clear the DPU has a robust and thoughtful strategy to make sure, to the best of all of our abilities, it does not happen again.

Kathy Laflash is president of the New England Gas Workers Alliance. NEGWA is a non-profit formed by United Steelworkers’ Locals which, together, represent approximately 1,600 gas workers in Massachusetts.