Residents return after gas blasts destroy homes in Massachusetts

Sep 17 2018 | 02:48 AM

Residents in communities north of Boston that were rocked by natural gas explosions were given the green light Sunday, Sept. 16, to return to their homes.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and other officials announced the move at a morning news conference and said electricity was restored to nearly all affected homes and businesses in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover. Gas service will remain shut off while officials continue investigating what caused last Thursday's explosions and fires, and crews inspect the gas lines and connections to homes.
He said investigators will be looking at how local Columbia Gas officials responded to a “pressure increase" in the Lawrence area that was detected at the company's pipeline control center in Columbus, Ohio, prior to the explosions and fires.
Columbia Gas operates miles of pipeline and compression facilities in Pike, Orange, and Sussex counties.
In Massachusetts, dozens of homes were destroyed or damaged, a teenager was killed, and dozens of people were injured. Thousands of residents were forced to evacuate. Crews have shut off nearly 8,600 gas meters in the area and cleared homes of any gas.
Officials said gas company technicians will turn all the meters back after safety inspections of the entire system are complete — a process expected to take several weeks. They warned residents not to turn the meters back on themselves, not to turn on gas appliances until service is restored and to call 911 and leave their homes if they smell gas.
“It's evident to me and to all of us the Merrimack Valley and the residents of our state are being as supportive as they can be and as kind as they can be to one another during this most difficult time," the Republican governor said. “We still have a very long way to go but we're very happy that people can return to their homes this morning."
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said Saturday that there was no evidence to suggest the explosions were intentional.
Communities evacuate amid confusionMassachusetts State Police urged all residents with homes serviced by Columbia Gas in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover to evacuate, snarling traffic and causing widespread confusion as residents and local officials struggled to understand what was happening.
Officials had cut power in the area and the streets were pitch black, save for emergency vehicle lights.
Lawrence General Hospital said it was treating victims with injuries related to the fires.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency blamed the fires on gas lines that had become over-pressurized, but officials who responded to the area were still investigating the cause. State officials said Columbia Gas was working to ease pressure on gas lines following the fires.
Columbia had announced earlier last Thursday that it would be upgrading gas lines in neighborhoods across the state, including the area where the explosions happened. It was not clear whether work was happening there Thursday, and a spokeswoman did not immediately return calls.
Explosions around the nationGas explosions have claimed lives and destroyed property around the U.S. in recent years.
A buildup of natural gas triggered an explosion and fire that killed seven people in apartments in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 2016.
In 2014, a gas explosion in New York City's East Harlem neighborhood killed eight people and injured about 50. Consolidated Edison later agreed to pay $153 million to settle charges after the state's Public Service Commission found Con Ed violated state safety regulations. A gas leak had been reported before that blast.
A 2011 natural gas explosion killed five people in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and that state's largest gas utility was fined by regulators who called the company's safety record “downright alarming."
USA Today is reporting the NiSource, the owner of Columbia Gas, is linked to three gas line blasts investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board: in Springfield, Mass., which injured 21 and damaged dozens of buildings in November 2012; in Sissonville, West Virginia, which destroyed three homes in December 2012; and in Upper Arlington, Ohio, which caused $9 million in structural damage in March 2015.
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