I was tempted to put my heat on last week when the temperature precipitously dropped into the chilly windy low 60s. But I didn’t — not just because it was much too early but also mainly because I kept thinking about the thousands of families who don’t have the option. They can’t turn on the heat — at least not with natural gas. For many families in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence, their only heat source is now a space heater. And it will be the only heat source at least through mid November when the damaged gas lines are expected to be operational again.
It’s been two weeks since Columbia Gas Company’s gas lines erupted causing 80 fires and explosions. Two weeks since the customers who depend on that gas have been in survival mode, some returning to undamaged homes, others dealing with rubble and charred remains — the remnants of what they once had.
A phalanx of organizations is focused on helping consumers navigate what are now the inconveniences of everyday living — like hot showers, home cooked meals and heat. Columbia Gas did respond relatively quickly with practical help — reimbursing the hotel costs. And, when residents were able to return home, the gas company followed up by distributing hot plates and space heaters to homes but only after determining the wiring could handle the extra load. On this first pass, consumers with faulty wiring were left to fend for themselves. “Columbia Gas is making it feel like it’s our fault,” a frustrated Lois Cosme told the Eagle Tribune.
Hearing her story I worry that some residents could put themselves at risk ironically by either sparking a grease or electrical fire trying to make do during the next 60 days. I know what happened in the Merrimack Valley is extremely rare and that most of the time we can safely rely on the gas pipelines that fuel homes and businesses. But in 2018, aren’t there better ways to heat and light our homes without concern that we’re playing Russian roulette with our utilities? Columbia Gas has taken the unprecedented step of offering to pay for customers to make the switch to alternative fuels, and I hope some residents, who otherwise couldn’t afford it, take advantage.
In the interim, several lawsuits have been filed against Columbia Gas. I expect there will be more.
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera has emphasized no one will be left in the cold. He said if necessary they will be sent to warm hotel rooms. Columbia Gas President Steve Bryant has pledged to help consumers with cash support. $10 million has been specifically earmarked for a relief fund.
In the meantime, it’s so easy for somebody else’s recovery to fade from our own present day realities. It’s been one year since Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico, but many residents are still sleeping under tarps without running water. Four years after lead lined pipes tainted the water, a lot of Flint Michigan residents still drink bottled water. They don’t trust that the water is safe.
As the temperatures continue to tick down, I don’t want to forget that a lot of my Massachusetts neighbors will be in a state of limbo for some time to come.