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A road map for gas system improvements

The problem of aging and leaky natural gas lines has haunted many Bay State communities for years, long before the Merrimack Valley gas disaster of 2018 put the safety of natural gas as a common heating fuel in question.

Periodic reports cited the fact there are thousands of detectable underground natural gas leaks from aging pipes, with the gas killing street trees, adding to greenhouse emissions and wasting a valuable fossil fuel – with the costs passed on to consumers.

Gas company problems took center stage in the Merrimack Valley on Sept. 13, 2018, when human error within the Columbia Gas network caused explosions and fires that killed one person, destroyed dozens of homes, and left thousands of people without heat and unable to live in their homes for weeks, or months, in some cases.

That disaster was the exception to normal operation of natural gas distribution systems. Unfortunately, “normal” operations in Massachusetts come with problems, according to a final report issued by Dynamic Risk Assessment Systems Inc. The company was hired by the Baker administration to look into the safety of natural gas infrastructure in the wake of the Merrimack Valley disaster and filed Phase 1 of the report in May 2019, with the final report last week. The report looks at each of the state’s 11 gas utilities after Dynamic Risk Assessment representatives spent time observing workers at job sites and pouring over thousands of pages of company manuals, policies and practices.

The panel reviewing the final report found that National Grid, which serves eastern Massachusetts, is lagging in repairing gas leaks on its gas distribution system. With 116 cities and towns in eastern Massachusetts -- including Boston -- in its footprint, National Grid is the states’s largest utility. The report looked at the percentage of what are classified as “leak-prone” materials – cast iron, wrought iron and unprotected steel – with National Grid’s network coming in at 28%. That percentage rose to 41% in Boston proper, the report said. It also noted more than 40% of National Grid’s gas mains were installed before 1970.

The Dynamic Risk report also noted, “It is likely the vast majority of leak-prone mains and services are located in the Greater Boston area where replacement work is particularly challenging,” an area National Grid officials said is where the company faces barriers to doing construction work.

To be clear, the report found the state’s natural gas system is “generally reliable,” but it found cases where observers found conditions in the field that didn’t match company presentations or company documents; many instances in which workers in the field stuck with a traditional script of how things would be done rather than pushing to adopt best practices; and meaningful pre-work briefings that were largely non-existent.

The 291-page report meshes with the Baker administration’s efforts to tighten up regulations and safety practices among gas companies.

Department of Public Utilities spokeswoman Katie Gronendyke said the agency has already “tripled the number of pipeline safety inspectors, required certified professional engineers to approve natural gas work, issued regulations to reduce incidents of excavation damage, and ensured that natural gas companies move to adopt recommended comprehensive pipeline safety management standards.”

The report concluded, in part, “While the gas companies are ultimately responsible for gas pipeline safety, pipeline safety can only be achieved by working together – with all involved embracing the common goal of enhancing pipeline safety across the commonwealth.”

Gronendyke called the document “a valuable tool to improve public safety.”

Now it’s up to the gas companies and state officials to keep the report’s recommendations front and center.

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