STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, DEC. 11, 2018.....Gas utility executives and state regulators faced sharp questions from lawmakers Tuesday as a House-Senate committee dug into the safety of the state's natural gas distribution infrastructure in the wake of September's deadly gas explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley.

Though the hearing was not held on any particular bill, the five utility executives said they support a bill (H 4979) filed by Gov. Charlie Baker to require all natural gas work that might pose a material risk to the public be reviewed and approved by a certified professional engineer. Legislative leaders have already expressed a willingness to pass that bill during informal sessions this month.

All five executives who testified stressed that their companies value safety above all else and said the Columbia Gas disaster in the Merrimack Valley serves as an opportunity to adjust their protocols and to ensure their methods are in line with industry best practices.

"Whenever a horrific event like this happens, you open up and do everything possible to prevent it from happening again," William Ackley, president of Eversource Energy's gas business unit, told lawmakers. "We're going to enhance and further support improvements we can make."

The first panel of the hearing included Ackley, Columbia Gas Of Massachusetts President and CEO Stephen Bryant, Berkshire Gas Company Senior Director of Operations Richard Nasman, National Grid Senior Vice President Ross Turrini, and Unitil gas operations Vice President Christopher LeBlanc.

Tuesday's hearing was focused not just on the Merrimack Valley, but on the possibility of a similar event happening elsewhere in the state, a possibility that Rep. Daniel Cahill of Lynn made clear during the hearing when he announced that he saw on Twitter that a school in Mashpee was being evacuated due to a gas leak.

Mashpee Public Schools said in a Facebook post that the Quashnet Elementary School was evacuated around 9:50 a.m. Tuesday "due to a strong gas odor coming from the cafeteria/loading dock area."

Sen. Michael Barrett, the co-chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, led much of the questioning of gas company executives, focusing in on how the companies train employees and subcontractors, what degree of oversight is given to work on gas mains or near gas line regulators, and whether a certified professional engineer signs off on work plans.

He questioned whether the 2014 gas leaks repair law, which put utilities on a timeline to repair their most dangerous leaks, prompted a tradeoff between safety and speed of repair, and pressed the executives about their companies' reliance on subcontractors versus their own employees to do much of the repair work. Barrett quoted from a document Columbia Gas submitted to the Department of Public Utilities on Oct. 31 in which the company said it "has no plans to hire additional internal personnel" to conduct its gas system enhancement plan (GSEP) work next year.

"We have a situation where, for the best of reasons, we've got an accelerated infrastructure buildout statewide right in the teeth of a full-employment economy. It seems as if there is a little bit of a scramble going on for workers," Barrett said. "You decided not to add, at least in Columbia Gas's case, full-time employees during this period of ramp up. Instead, you're going with contractors and I'm just noting that it's harder to expect the much publicized and always valued culture of safety when the people aren't even your own."

Bryant, the president and CEO of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, told Barrett that his company has already made "significant increases in personnel" in recent years in anticipation of the work that will be necessary under its GSEP. He said the other four utilities represented at Tuesday's hearing are in the same boat.

"I think Columbia Gas finds itself in the same position as at least the other gas distribution companies in Massachusetts, that there is an increased reliance on contractors as the GSEP programs have increased," he said.

Barrett said it is clear to him that the utilities have "an explicit policy to drive down headcount" that each is pursuing simultaneously. Bryant said he thinks Columbia Gas has increased its headcount in recent years, but said he'd have to get back to the committee with hard numbers.

"I don't get it," Barrett said. "I really don't understand how you can square fewer employees overseeing more [subcontractors] and still claim solemnly to be concerned about safety at every turn."

Dozens Of Gas Explosions Rock Massachusetts Towns
File photo/ Getty Images

A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report into the Sept. 13 explosions and fires and Lawrence, Andover and North Andover that left one man dead and damaged 131 structures said the incidents occurred "after high-pressure natural gas was released into a low-pressure gas distribution system."

The agency said that the work being done by a subcontractor on Sept. 13 was designed and approved by Columbia Gas and that it was carried out in accordance with the steps laid out in the approved work package. But the NTSB found that 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."

In all, the overpressurization damaged 131 structures, including five homes that were completely destroyed, NTSB said. One man was killed and at least 21 other people were hospitalized as a result, the agency said.

On Tuesday afternoon, it was the Department of Public Utilities' turn in the hot seat, as Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matt Beaton, DPU Chair Angela O'Connor, and DPU Pipeline Safety Division Director Richard Wallace faced questioning from the committee.

The number of pipeline inspectors available at DPU, and whether the agency is understaffed in that regard, was a central theme of Beaton's testimony and the subsequent questioning.

"The issue of pipeline inspectors has also been an area of public scrutiny in the wake of the Merrimack Valley overpressurization event," Beaton said. "However, based upon the information made publicly available to date, we believe that no additional number of inspectors would have prevented this incident."

The secretary said that DPU pipeline safety inspectors conducted 1,177 inspections in 2017, up from 880 in 2016. He said that since 2014, DPU has averaged between 10 and 12 public utility engineers, some of whom are certified as inspectors.

Barrett said he and Beaton had a "serious disagreement about numbers here," and cited a 2017 document in which the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration reported that DPU had just two pipeline inspectors available.

Beaton explained that on the days of the federal inspection, there were eight public utility engineers on DPU's staff -- but one certified inspector was not conducting inspections due to a medical condition, another was on medical leave, four new hires were going through the certification process and the two division directors who were certified as inspectors were doing more managerial work.

He said DPU currently has 11 public utility engineers -- six certified as inspectors, five more en route to being trained and two additional jobs posted. He said that would bring the total number of public utility engineers to 14, "the highest in anyone's recent memory."

Baker's bill is based on an NTSB recommendation included in the federal agency's report on the cause of the Merrimack Valley gas explosions. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka on Monday indicated that their branches could take action on that bill before the new legislative session begins in January.

"We have a lot of work to do," Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said. "We have seen a systemic failure that has caused indescribable hardship and tragic loss of life. It is my opinion that there is a role for all of us to play to keep that from ever happening again."

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