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The Senate Oversight Hearing On Columbia Gas

Senate Commerce Committee Holds Hearing In Lawrence On Merrimack Valley Gas Explosions

Gas Explosions
Sworn in during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on gas pipeline safety in the Merrimack Valley are, from left, Robert Sumwalt, chairman, National Transportation Safety Board, Matthew Beaton, secretary, Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Steve Bryant, president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, Joe Hamrock, president and CEO of NiSource, Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts, Inc., and Paul Roberti, chief council for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Monday, Nov. 26, 2018, in Lawrence, Mass.
Winslow Townson/AP
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The Senate Oversight Hearing On Columbia Gas

Executives from Columbia Gas and its parent company NiSource testified before a U.S. Senate field hearing in Lawrence Monday. WGBH Radio's Craig LeMoult was there. He spoke with WGBH's All Things Considered anchor Barbara Howard about what happened at the hearing. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Barbara Howard: What was the goal of the hearing today?

Craig LeMoult: I think politically, the goal may have been to allow the state's two senators and other members of Congress to be seen criticizing Columbia Gas and its parent company after the tragedy that happened there. But the senators said they wanted answers about the mistakes that were made that led up to that tragedy, and what's been done since, both in the recovery effort and to ensure that this kind of thing doesn't happen again.

Howard: Who was testifying?

LeMoult: Well, one of the first to testify was Lucianny Rondon, whose brother Leonel was killed when a chimney from an exploding house in Lawrence fell on the car he was sitting in — he'd actually just gotten his license that day. Lucianny described her brother as a kind person who helped out neighbors, and she really choked up at one point, pausing for more than 30 seconds before saying this.

Clip of Lucianny Rondon: "We hope there will be justice for him in the community."

LeMoult: She went on to say that no family should have to go through what her family has gone through.

Howard: Was there any more light shed on what we already know about what caused the fires and explosions?

LeMoult: Right — we do know, basically, what happened: there was a sensor that caused over-pressurization of a gas line. But what they were talking about today was why it happened. National Transportation Safety Board chairman Robert Sumwalt talked about that. He said, we know plans for this work did not include the location of that sensor line that sent more gas into the line.

Clip of Robert Sumwalt: "We know that not all of Columbia Gas’ internal departments were required to review the plans, nor were they required to be approved by a professional engineer."

LeMoult: He said also that a practice had been discontinued that used to require personnel to be in place to monitor work on gas mains, so that they're available to respond to any problems like that.

Howard: What came out of this meeting? Were there any recommendations or anything like that?

LeMoult: Actually here in Massachusetts, the Northeast Gas Association has already committed to adopting a pipeline safety management system. Basically, that requires a licensed professional engineer to approve those kinds of plans. And both Markey and Warren suggested that a new federal law should require that kind of thing in all 50 states. Markey also really made a point of criticizing the federal agency that regulates pipelines — the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. He said they were too cozy with the industry that they’re regulating, and it's going to take federal legislation to make the pipeline system safe.

Also, another issue that came up, is that it took 26 minutes for the company to shut gas off after the pressure spike was detected. Utility executives said they're now installing an automatic shutoff system so that kind of thing can happen a whole lot faster.

Howard: We saw what happened in those 26 minutes. Well, now it's been two months since the disaster happened. How many homes still don't have gas? Any idea when they might expect to be fully restored?

LeMoult: Columbia Gas says there are 1,300 meters that still don't have gas. More than 1,100 families are still living in temporary housing, including those RVs that are out there, and hotel rooms. Columbia Gas President Steve Bryant said they plan to restore gas to every home before December 16. And Senator Elizabeth Warren asked if he could guarantee that that would happen.

Clip of Steve Bryant and Elizabeth Warren:

Bryant: "Senator, for me to guarantee would suggest that we’re in control of everything in life."

Warren: "Let me stop you right there. You are in control. You are the guys who have all the information."

LeMoult: And, she pointed out, they're the ones who set that December 16 date. Bryant went on to commit to restoring everybody by that date, December 16.

Howard: Well, did the lawmakers there seem satisfied by what they were hearing?

LeMoult: Not at all. Here's what Markey had to say as the hearing was ending.

Clip of Markey: "Temperatures in Massachusetts are dropping, and so is my faith, our faith, that Columbia Gas, NiSource, and federal regulators can't prevent another disaster like this from happening again."

LeMoult: Senator Elizabeth Warren asked the NiSource CEO at one point how much he makes. He answered $5 million a year, and she asked if he was going to personally lose any money over all this. And he said he may lose a bonus. She was really pushing this personal responsibility thing. And Warren and Markey and other members of Congress said they think that the leadership at the company needs to change.

Then, in a second panel today, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said Columbia Gas itself should cease to exist altogether. Although the heads of the utility company and its parent company weren't there to respond to that. After they were done testifying in the first panel, they didn't stick around to hear the second panel with the mayor, the fire chief, and an affected business owner.

Howard: So they left?

LeMoult: They left, yes.

Howard: Well, thanks for joining us.

LeMoult: You're welcome.

Howard: That's WGBH Radio's Craig LeMoult. He was at a Senate field hearing in Lawrence today on the September gas explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley. This is WGBH’s All Things Considered.

WGBH News coverage is a resource provided by member-supported public radio. We can’t do it without you.
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