In the next few weeks the Legislature has a chance to make all of us who live in communities served by natural gas feel more reassured about the safety of the pipes that run under our streets and into our homes and provide us with heat, hot water and energy for cooking.
As the National Transportation Safety Board made clear in its findings on the explosions that tore through the Merrimack Valley a year ago, safety comes from adequate oversight of our natural gas system, and the use of skilled, experienced workers on that system.
When oversight falls short, we all know what can happen. In our communities, it cost us 131 damaged or destroyed homes and businesses; the evacuation of 30,000 residents; and, most tragic of all, the loss of a young life.
While the state has taken some steps in the wake of the tragedy to tighten up oversight of the natural gas infrastructure, more is needed. That’s why, with the co-sponsorship of Sen. Cindy Friedman and the support of the 1,600 gas workers in the New England Gas Workers Alliance, we are seeking passage of an omnibus bill taking even more steps for a safe gas system.
An Act Relative to Improving Gas Workers Field Safety will provide improved protections for the general public but also enhances safety for first responders and gas workers from dangerous conditions that result when crews are doing work on natural gas systems.
Currently, gas utilities are too reliant on outside contractors to perform potentially hazardous functions. This bill creates a certification process to better track and rate these companies. The bill also calls for commonsense improvements such as improved communication between towns and utilities regarding roadwork and gas leak repairs, improved access to gas gates (under-street gas shutoffs that protect homes and businesses from fires and explosions), and, crucially, increased inspections of gas pipelines.
The next bill, An Act to Promote Gas Safety, makes needed reforms to the Department of Public Utilities. The bill better equips the DPU to monitor the work of public utility companies, enforce safety measures and prevent future tragedies. This bill adds an energy infrastructure oversight board with representation from organized labor, and ensures a more timely and transparent system for the investigations of complaints.
Many of the safety complaints filed months ago during the National Grid lockout have yet to be resolved. The legislation also establishes whistleblower protections for employees reporting safety violations, and it increases utility fines for those violations.
Finally, the legislation allocates $1.5 million to hire more gas and pipeline inspectors — critical positions which right now are simply far too understaffed.
By ensuring that DPU is better able to do its job, we’re ensuring the safety of our residents and workers. And we are reminding regulators of a crucial fact: they work to protect the public, not utilities.
The provisions in this legislation preventing the use of lesser-skilled and trained workers on our gas system will go a long way to preventing the kind of situation that prolonged the problems in the Merrimack Valley and kept the most experienced workers from helping to restore safe service to homes and businesses.
Even as Lawrence and Andover struggled to put safe service back in place, the National Grid utility was engaged in a bruising lockout that prevented more than 1,200 of Massachusetts’ gas employees – some of the most skilled and experienced in the region – from helping the Merrimack Valley. Those workers were the men and women who, if not locked out, would have been immediately put in place to restore service. Instead they were replaced by workers brought in from states around the country.
After what happened to the Merrimack Valley, we must take every single step possible to be sure that our gas system is properly inspected and that the very best workers are always available to do the work – not replacement workers or contractors.
When delivered responsibly by a skilled workforce, our natural gas system is safe and efficient.
Please let your state representative and senator know how important it is that every step possible is taken to prevent another tragedy from striking Massachusetts, and join us in supporting these two critical pieces of cost-effective legislation.
State Rep. Frank Moran, D-Lawrence, represents the 17th Essex District in the state House of Representatives and filed An Act Relative to Improving Gas Workers Field Safety. John Buonopane is president of United Steelworkers, Local 12012-4, a member of the New England Gas Workers Alliance.