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State Of Emergency Declared After Gas Explosions, Eversource Put In Charge Of Situation In Merrimack Valley

Fires, Explosions Rock Lawrence, North Andover and Andover
Police block the road to a house on Chickering Road in Lawrence. The house is one of a number destroyed by gas line explosions and fires in Merrimack Valley.
Meredith Nierman/WGBH News

A day after a series of gas explosions and fires tore through the Merrimack Valley, Gov. Charlie Baker, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, and other officials, spoke to press just before 7 p.m. Friday only a few hours after Eversource took over the situation from Columbia Gas to get people back into their homes.

The process to restore gas will likely take weeks, according to Eversource.

Rivera said that the people of Lawrence have come together and there have been zero instances of looting. He stressed that it is still not safe to return to south Lawrence.

“I think Lawrence is on track,” Rivera said.

Andrew Flanagan, the town manager of Andover, spoke at the conference to urge residents who have returned home, not to turn on their gas if they have not been cleared.

Progress has continued under the leadership of Eversource, Flanagan said. “I expect that this will continue this evening and into the morning,” he said.

There are currently 8,000 homes that need to be inspected individually.

“We’ve advanced this as rapidly as it possibly could have been advanced," said Steve Bryant, the president of Columbia Gas, earlier this afternoon in his first public appearance since the incident. "I don’t think that anybody else managing this would have been further down the road than we are at the moment."

“We are sorry and deeply concerned about the inconvenience,” Bryant said. “This is the sort of thing that a gas distribution company hopes never happens.”

Bryant deferred questions about the cause of the incident to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is conducting the investigation.

“We have a tremendous record … I think that we will be very careful and very methodical about restoring service,” he added.

An hour before Bryant spoke, Baker declared a state of emergency and placed Eversource in charge of the situation during a press conference with Rivera Friday afternoon. In addition to dozens of fires and injuries, eighteen-year-old Leonel Rondon died when a gas explosion dislodged a chimney and landed on his car.

Rivera said that Columbia Gas asked Lawrence to evacuate everyone south of the river and turn off the power Thursday night. Rivera said Columbia Gas assured him that it was necessary.

"Those are the last two pieces of information we got from Columbia Gas," he said. "Everything since then has been obfuscation and they have not met their mandate. They promise hundreds of teams of technicians. None have materialized."

Thousands of families in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover are still waiting to find out when they can get back to their homes after being forced to evacuate.

"They promised that they would get the gas shut off by late tomorrow night, and I think that at the rate that they're going now they're going to blow that window," Rivera said.

"They were supposed to do a strategic neighborhood by neighborhood door knocking effort to shut down the gas," he added. "They didn't do that."

"They wasted last night calling the other utilities to come in. They waited until the last possible moment," Rivera said. "We had over 60 pieces of apparatus waiting to go into the neighborhoods overnight and we had to send many home."

"It just seems like there is no one in charge," he said.

Rivera called for Columbia Gas to hold a press conference by 4 p.m. Friday with the press present to brief the community on the situation.

"They're hiding from the problem ... they're not here," Rivera said. "My very family is displaced. Neighbors who watched their houses blow up next to them have no understanding of why that happened."

"I would like to see more control taken about this," Rivera said shortly before Baker took the podium to announce that his administration has placed Eversource in charge.

"Today, on a number of very significant issues we heard one thing and something else happened," Baker said. "We've made a decision to declare a state of emergency."

With the state of emergency, the Commonwealth now has the authority to remove Columbia Gas as the lead organization and put Eversource in its place.

"Eversource is going to be in charge of this project from this point forward," Baker said. "And we believe that will make a big difference with respect to their relationship between what gets told to us and what actually happens on the ground and the representations that are made to the people in these three communities."

Both Baker and Rivera raised concerns about Columbia Gas' leadership, or apparent lack thereof.

"We weren't expecting them to hit it out of the park but we did expect them to swing the bat," Rivera said.

"It is in the best interest for us to get a new team leading this effort," Baker said.

Late Friday, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs released details of $100,000 in fines the Department of Public Utilities has levied against Columbia Gas for safety violations dating back to 2010.

The list documented seven violations including improper pressure testing in Brockton in 2011; insufficient corrosion control in Bridgewater in 2012, and failure to follow federal regulations for use of a leak repair kit in Taunton in 2016.

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