May 2019 Vol. 74 No. 5

Editor's Log

Renewing a Community of Cooperation

Robert Carpenter  Editor-in-Chief


In the late afternoon of Sept. 13, 2018, for two and a half hours, the people in the Merrimack Valley area of Massachusetts (primarily the towns of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover) were rocked by a series of explosions and roughly 80 fires that caused 30,000 people to flee their homes. Miraculously, there was only one fatality and 25 minor injuries.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that over-pressurized natural gas lines were the source of the explosions and fires in this region north of Boston. It also found that utility workers contracted by Columbia Gas failed to account for critical pressure sensors as they replaced century-old, cast-iron pipes. It was essentially basic human error with deadly results.

But forgotten in all this is the aftermath and recovery, an amazing story of a gas industry elevating itself to heretofore impossible heights, unheard of cooperation and above all else, a safety and damage prevention record unlikely to be equaled.

Columbia Gas had the unenviable task of immediately rebuilding 50 miles of gas distribution pipeline infrastructure that included restoring services to more than 8,600 homes and businesses, and 6,100 service lines. Fall had already arrived by this point and temperatures were turning cooler with winter fast approaching. Homes without heat would soon become intolerable in the often-harsh winters of Massachusetts.

Columbia did a masterful job of putting together a construction/repair/system restoration plan to begin in October and finish in November. It was an ambitious dream, really, full of hopeful assumptions more than anything. Yet it worked.

The call went out to key contractor partners. Miller Pipeline rallied 400 workers to the area. InfraSource, Mears and locals Feeney Brothers and Bond Brothers were among several contractors that brought hundreds of veteran crews to the emergency rebuild program, some coming from more than 1,000 miles away.

Arriving personnel were able to start work almost immediately with a minimum of the usual paperwork. Typical regulatory delays turned into green lights (within reason) and political hoops were leapt in record time. Local, state and federal regulatory agencies (including OSHA) cooperated and expedited procedures. The 63 planned construction sites went from idle to full activity in a heartbeat.

Of course, safety and damage prevention protocols were strictly employed. But these were reputable contractors with outstanding safety records and procedures. They came to the job site knowing how to perform their work both safely and effectively. In fact, despite the massive amount of manhours amassed in a short period of time, there was not one accident or injury reported. Even bandaids stayed in the box.

Logistics were artfully organized and communicated. Contractors obtained supplies and dumped materials at strategic sites, using a steady synchronization that monitored needs. All was designed so that work was never delayed, never stopped and continued unabated. Emerging from this 50-mile job site were new definitions of efficiency and productivity. Work was largely completed in just five weeks.

Initially, hotel rooms around the area were reserved for the workers as they rolled in. But many locals needed a place to stay, as well, while waiting for the resumption of service. The solution: contractor personnel went cruising.

A large cruise ship was procured and stationed in Boston harbor to house the thousands of workers, leaving hotels available for local citizens. Of course, this meant a long commute each day through horrific Boston traffic, but for the workers, that was just part of the job.

Many politicians came to inspect the work efforts, and some couldn’t resist the temptation to renew criticism and condemnation of the gas industry. These viewpoints presented a disconnect from their local constituents of epic proportions.

The miracle of hard work, dedication and commitment by the contractor personnel was not lost on the local populace. It didn’t take long for the locals to appreciate everything that construction crews were doing for them. Leaving their homes, working long hours, taking no breaks, staying on a ship—all to accommodate local citizens.

People sincerely appreciated everything the gas industry meant to them and the efforts being exerted to handle the emergency. Assorted signs appeared everywhere around the towns, praising and thanking the contractors. Food, snacks, drinks and all kinds of convenience items were brought to the contractors in a never-ending supply train by the locals.

The gas community came together to serve their customer community at a time of need. What a great story to be shared. Let’s just hope the region’s many anti-natural gas politicians will listen and learn from their constituents for a change.

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