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Year After Devastating Natural Gas Pipeline Explosion, Leak Forces New Massachusetts Evacuations


A leaking pipeline forced evacuations in part of Lawrence, Massachusetts late last week, barely a year after a massive natural gas explosion devastated the very same community.

Massachusetts Natural Gas Leak was in “Explosive Range”

Columbia Gas reported that a high-pressure natural gas line was leaking near South Broadway and Salem Street in South Lawrence shortly after 3:00 a.m. on Friday, September 27th.

With the gas release in the “explosive range”, officials ordered 146 homes and businesses to evacuate, shut off gas and electric service to the area, and blocked off several roads. Two schools — Wetherbee School and Lawrence Catholic Academy – also closed for the day.

Fortunately, most of those evacuated were able to return home by Friday evening.

Non-Compliant Valve May Have Triggered Natural Gas Leak

It now appears human error caused the natural gas leak, which occurred after city contractors inadvertently closed a gas valve, puncturing the high-pressure main in the process. According to the Department of Public Utilities, the valve did not comply with current standards and should have been disabled as part of pipeline reconstruction in 2018.

“Out of an abundance of caution, Columbia Gas has identified 45 gas valves that the Department of Public Utilities has required Columbia Gas and mutual aid partners to immediately inspect and bring into compliance if necessary,” said a joint statement issued by the utility, the DPU, and the city of Lawrence.

Overpressurized Line Caused Massachusetts Natural Gas Explosion

The residents of Lawrence are still working to recover from a series of natural gas explosions and fires that rocked Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley on September 13, 2018.

The catastrophe resulted in the death of a teenage boy, injured dozens of others, and destroyed or damaged more than 100 homes and buildings in the Boston suburbs of Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover. The Massachusetts governor declared a state of emergency and hundreds lived without heat, running water, or electricity for several months.

Investigators eventually determined that a gas main became overpressurized while Columbia Gas was working to replace old cast iron pipelines in the area. In a report released just days before the most recent natural gas emergency in Lawrence, the National Transportation Safety Board placed most of the blame on the utility, faulting Columbia Gas for inadequate planning, documentation, and record-keeping processes, as well as an insufficient review process and the failure to follow its own emergency response procedures.

“Catastrophic tragedies like this should never happen,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said in a statement announcing the findings. “When tackling major repair work that has the potential to impact a community, all precautions and planning should be considered and coordinated before, during and after the work has been done.”

Gas Pipeline Explosions Have Killed Hundreds Since 1990

Unfortunately, the traumas inflicted on Lawrence and the rest of the Merrimack Valley are hardly rare. In fact, natural gas pipeline explosions and failures have killed nearly 300 people in the United States since 1990 and injured over 1,600 others.

The majority of deadly incidents involved aging cast iron or uncoated steel pipes that had finally succumbed to decades of freezing and thawing, corrosion, vibration, and shifting soil. In some cases, poorly installed pipelines were slowly leaking gas for years, while construction crews or homeowners had damaged others.

1 Killed, 5 Injured in Kentucky Pipeline Explosion

Less than two months ago, on August 1st, a 30-inch natural gas line along the Texas Eastern Transmission Co. pipeline exploded in Lincoln County, Kentucky, tragically killing a 58-year-old grandmother, severely injuring 5 others, and destroying dozens of houses and cars in the blast zone.

Construction on the Texas Eastern Transmission Co. pipeline began before World War II, and the aging network now spans more 9,100 miles from the Gulf Coast to the northeastern United States. Eighty-three explosions, ruptures, and other accidents have occurred along this single network since 1985, including 9 that resulted in serious injury or death.

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