An initial report from a federal investigation into the Merrimack Valley gas fires is faulting the Columbia Gas company for not taking the proper safety measures to prevent the disaster. The report, from the National Transportation Safety Board, confirms that too much pressure in gas pipelines led to the dozens of fires and multiple explosions that have left thousands still without hot water or heat. Shortly before the NTSB released its initial findings, WGBH News Reporter Craig LeMoult spoke with Pablo Vegas at the Columbia Gas offices in Lawrence. Vegas is the chief restoration officer for NiSource, the parent company of Columbia Gas. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Pablo Vegas: I'd say that a month in, we're starting to feel the wheels of progress turn much more quickly. We're starting to get more information available to our customers on how the project is going. Just earlier this week, we launched an interactive map that allows a customer to put in their address and see what are the estimated dates for when their home will be house-ready — meaning that it can take service because the inside has been repaired — and when the house is gas ready, meaning that the work in the street and the service line leading to the home has been replaced and repaired. Over half of the pipeline miles that need to be replaced have been completed. The most complex part of the project is the work that has to be done inside the homes, because we need to get inside the home of every one of the residents that's been impacted. Over 10,000 residents are going to be touched through this process, and we have to get in the homes, we have to make sure that the gas lines are safe, and if they need to be repaired to repair them or replace those gas lines, and then we have to replace all of the gas appliances. So the ranges, the dryers, and then the gas equipment — boilers, furnaces, hot water heaters, all of those are going to be replaced as part of this process.
Craig LeMoult: What's the estimate about how much all of this is going to cost Columbia Gas?
Vegas: You know, at this stage in the restoration work, we really have not been focusing on what the cost is going to be. It's been 100 percent focused on meeting the needs of our customers. Columbia Gas can draw on the resources of the broader NiSource organization, which is the parent company. We're working with insurance partners that are part of our business model as well. And we have all the resources that we need to support this restoration work.
LeMoult: It's going to get cold soon. Do you have enough options for people out there if they can't heat their homes?
Vegas: I believe we do. And overall, trying to get as many customers active and re-lit before the weather turns is our main driver. But we understand that winter is coming. And so we are making sure that we have back-up alternatives in the case that we needed and between the hotel options, between shelter options that MEMA is helping us with, I think we're going to have everything that we're going to need in order to support our customers. But we've got to get their homes up and running and keep them in their homes so that they can weather the winter where they need to be.
LeMoult: Several people I've spoken to in this community have said to me that they are scared about the gas coming back. Can you assure people that this will be safe once the gas comes back? That they can feel good in their homes?
Vegas: The system that we're going to be putting back in place and providing to our customers is going to be one of the highest quality safe systems that any gas operator in the country could utilize. And our customers can feel completely secure that the gas system we're installing is going to be the safest available.
LeMoult: You understand people's anxiety, though, given the fact that they thought they were safe before?
Vegas: It's got to be extremely disconcerting for a customer to have gone through what this whole community has gone through. And I certainly understand that concern and want to be able to provide every assurance and as much information as we can about why they should feel secure when the gas comes back, that the system is going to be operating properly, and that we've got the experience to ensure that their gas will continue to remain safe going forward.