Faulty work orders Columbia Gas of Massachusetts issued to crews upgrading natural gas mains led to a series of explosions and fires that caused widespread property damages across three northern Massachusetts towns, killing one person and injuring 21 others, federal investigators found.
In its preliminary report on the Sept. 13 gas explosions, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that work crews were taking a century-old cast-iron gas main out of service and replacing it with a new plastic main. However, Columbia Gas failed to instruct workers to deactivate pressure sensors.
The sensors, detecting low pressure in the pipes, automatically triggered the Columbia Gas system to compensate by releasing more gas into the infrastructure. This caused a buildup of gas resulting in pressures up to 12 times higher than the system could handle.
A Columbia Gas control room in Ohio recorded the spike in pressure in the Massachusetts service area at 4:04 p.m., less than seven minutes before authorities received the first 911 call reporting a house fire.
The resulting high-pressure gas leaks triggered explosions in homes and business in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover just north of Boston, displacing thousands of residents and prompting Governor Charlie Baker to declare a state of emergency.
The NTSB said that Columbia gas workers were not to blame for the accident because they were following the company’s orders.
“Columbia Gas developed and approved the work package executed on the day of the accident. The work package did not account for the location of the sensing lines or require their relocation to ensure the regulators were sensing actual system pressure,” the agency said. “The work was performed in accordance with steps laid out in the work package.”
The pipeline explosions killed 18-year-old Leonel Rondon of Lawrence, Mass., when a brick chimney from a house that blew up landed on his car. Mr. Rondon has just gotten his driver’s license hours earlier.
Public officials at every level have criticized Columbia Gas’ handling of the disaster, calling it slow and incompetent Gov. Baker called on another private gas provider, Eversource, to take over testing and response. He said the move was “justified “after it became clear to us that Columbia Gas was simply inadequately prepared to take the steps necessary to effectively manage relief efforts.”
The NTSB continues to investigate the Columbia Gas explosions and it will likely take several months for it to issue a final report.
U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass) said the NTSB’s preliminary report “raises more questions than answers.”
“We need to turn over every stone and shine a light on the workings of this company and the entire industry, so that people can both trust that their gas system is safe and verify that nothing like this will ever happen again,” Markey said, according to USA Today. “The fate of families and small businesses depends on it.”