Union chief pushes natural gas safety bills

Many complaints against Natl. Grid still unresolved

THE NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD’S final findings on the Merrimack Valley gas explosions make two facts crystal clear – skilled workers and adequate oversight are crucial to ensure a safe natural gas system in Massachusetts.

It’s been a little over a year since devastating gas explosions rocked Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, and the work needed to make sure it never happens again remains only partly done.

Those explosions killed one young man and sent 21 other Merrimack Valley residents to area hospitals. They also damaged 131 homes and businesses. More than 30,000 residents were forced to evacuate, and some people remained displaced for weeks or months, spending their holidays in shelters or their cars.

At the same time, the National Grid utility engaged in a bruising lockout – preventing more than 1,200 of Massachusetts’ most skilled and experienced gas employees from helping the Merrimack Valley, and replacing them with lesser trained workers.

These two situations – though vastly different – highlighted serious flaws in the safety and oversight of the Commonwealth’s natural gas pipelines. While scrutiny of Massachusetts’ gas system has increased following these crisises, it’s imperative we not allow another year to go by without implementing comprehensive and much-needed reforms.

That’s why the gas workers of Massachusetts are advocating for two bills, currently pending in the Legislature, which will dramatically improve public safety, strengthen regulations, and ensure the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) has the ability and resources to monitor natural gas systems and enforce safety measures to prevent future tragedies.

The first bill, An Act Relative to Improving Gas Workers Field Safety, is sponsored by Rep. Frank Moran of Lawrence in the House and Sen. Cindy Friedman of Arlington in the Senate. The bill greatly enhances safety measures to protect the general public, first responders, and gas workers from dangerous conditions that result when crews are doing work on natural gas systems.

Currently, gas utilities are too reliant on outside contractors to perform hazardous functions. This bill creates a certification process to better track and rate these companies. The bill also calls for common sense improvements such as improved communication between towns and utilities regarding roadwork and gas leak repairs, improved access to gas gates (under-street gas shutoffs that protect homes and businesses from fires and explosions), and increased inspections of gas pipelines.

All of these are lessons learned from the Merrimack Valley tragedy.

The next bill—An Act to Promote Gas Safety—from Rep. Carolyn Dykema of Holliston and Sen. Paul Feeney of Foxborough, makes needed reforms to the DPU.

The bill better equips the DPU to monitor the work of public utility companies, enforce safety measures, and prevent future tragedies. This bill adds an energy infrastructure oversight board with representation from organized labor, and ensures a more timely and transparent system for the investigations of complaints. Many of the safety complaints filed months ago during the National Grid lockout have yet to be resolved. The legislation also establishes whistleblower protections for employees reporting safety violations, and increases utility fines for those violations.

Most importantly, the legislation allocates $1.5 million to hire more gas and pipe line inspectors, critical positions which are currently woefully understaffed. By ensuring the DPU is better able to do its job, we’re ensuring the safety of our residents and workers. And we are reminding regulators of a crucial fact: they work to protect the public, not utilities.

In the wake of the Merrimack Valley tragedy and the apparent callous disregard for public safety shown by National Grid to its best workers, business as usual is not acceptable. Fortunately, the Legislature is poised to continue its legacy of protecting workers and customers across Massachusetts. That should reassure all of us who work with natural gas, and who use it to heat and light our homes and businesses.

Meet the Author

Kathy Laflash

President, New England Gas Workers Alliance
The New England Gas Workers Alliance is made up of more than 1,600 experienced gas workers who are members of four local unions. Our mission is to enhance gas reliability and efficiency and, most important, to improve gas safety for workers and the public. Please join us in supporting these two critical pieces of legislation, and make the Commonwealth safer for generations to come.

Kathy Laflash is president of the New England Gas Workers Alliance.