Mass. should step up gas-disaster plans, consultant says
The state government needs to better prepare for emergencies caused by natural gas incidents and increase training and drills for both officials and utilities, a consultant hired in the wake of the disaster in the Lawrence area reported Wednesday.
The independent consultant, Dynamic Risk, said in a preliminary report this week to the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs that Massachusetts and its utilities had so focused on responding to electrical outages that they overlooked the far more dangerous consequences of a gas disaster.
“Overall, this focus on electrical power may have reduced the amount of focus, time, and energy spent on pipeline safety,” the report said.
Dynamic Risk said Massachusetts should improve its emergency response systems, develop training protocols, and conduct more drills to prepare for unlikely but consequential disasters such as the Sept. 13 catastrophe in greater Lawrence that killed one person, injured dozens more, and damaged the regional gas system, leaving tens of thousands of residents without heat or hot water leading into the winter months.
The cause of that disaster remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, though a preliminary review found the system was overpressurized because a utility engineer had failed to relocate a pressure sensor in construction plans for pipeline replacement, meaning a critical safety device was not in place when gas was turned on.
In November, Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities commissioned Dynamic Risk to conduct its own review of the state’s and utilities’ safety management systems, operations and construction procedures, and crisis management system.
The recommendations released Wednesday are the result of the first phase of Dynamic Risk’s work. It also emphasized the importance of an ongoing effort by the utilities to replace hundreds of miles of dated cast-iron and steel supply pipes, which are more prone to leaks than modern materials. The report also said the state should incorporate gas pipeline safety in its overall plans to address climate change, specifically efforts to reduce greenhouse gases by 2050.
Though the utilities generally follow safety protocols during construction, the consultant cautioned that the Department of Public Utilities should pay more attention to construction contractors who repeatedly violate what are known as Dig Safe requirements when working near underground gas pipes.
“Even if the maximum penalties are being assessed, the amount of the penalty does not seem to deter excavators who face greater impacts by stopping work than by paying a fine,” the report stated. “Undertaking efforts to deter excavators who are repeat offenders can help improve gas safety.”
A second phase of the study, expected over the next six months, will look at how utility companies conduct field operations, specifically during construction projects.
While Dynamic Risk found that, overall, regulators and utilities comply with federal regulations, they could take additional steps to enhance safety. The consultant also recommended the state provide more guidance to utilities on a proposed rule that would require they use professional engineers, who have higher levels of training and certification, to sign off on major construction projects.
State officials welcomed the review, noting that among the measures since the Lawrence disaster, they have boosted the number of on-staff engineers to review and inspect gas-pipe work.
“The administration looks forward to reviewing the final independent report and remains committed to ensuring the state’s natural gas distribution system is operated in a safe and reliable manner,” the Baker administration said.