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Long Before Gas Blasts, a Troubled Infrastructure Threatened

January 6, 2019

By Jonathan Ng

Boston Herald

Gov. Charlie Baker took a victory lap Saturday touting the Merrimack Valley’s economic recovery after September’s deadly gas explosions -- but state records investigated by the Herald show that months before the region was rocked by fire, the state’s crumbling infrastructure and gas leaks made the blasts almost inevitable.

The study revealed the state had more than 34,000 reported gas leaks in 2017. Almost 7,500 of those were considered “Grade 1” leaks -- the highest classification, representing an “existing or probable hazard to persons or property” and requiring repair “as immediately as possible.”

“We’re literally sitting on bombs,” said Audrey Schulman, executive director of Cambridge-based HEET, a nonprofit that helps residents save energy in their homes and lower gas emissions. Her organization maps gas leaks across Massachusetts using DPU data. “The pipes in Massachusetts are past their well-use dates.”

The state Department of Public Utilities (DPU) presented a December 2018 report to state lawmakers on the prevalence of natural gas leaks in Massachusetts to state legislators, highlighting the number of leaks for 2017 and the time and cost estimates for eliminating the mounting backlog of the leaks.

Massachusetts law requires utility companies to grade all reported natural gas leaks on a 1 to 3 scale based on the hazard posed by the leak:

* A grade 1 leak represents an “existing or probably hazard to persons or property and requires repair ‘as immediately as possible.’”

* A grade 2 leak is non-hazardous to persons or property at the time of detection, but “justifies scheduled repair based on probable future hazard.”

* A grade 3 leak is non-hazardous to persons or property at the time of detection and can be “reasonably expected to remain non-hazardous.

In 2017, there were a collective 34,369 leaks on the gas distribution system. Broken down as follows: 7,437 Grade 1 leaks; 6,393 Grade 2 leaks; and 20,539 Grade 3 leaks. Those figures do not represent the number of ongoing and unrepaired leaks.

A 2014 study commissioned by DPU estimated that there were over 6,000 miles of aging infrastructure in Massachusetts that were deemed “vulnerable to natural gas leakage.” In 2015, seven of the gas companies in the state filed plans with DPU to accelerate pipe infrastructure repairs.

In 2016, Massachusetts gas utilities collectively spent approximately $356 million dollars to replace 250 miles of leak-prone mains and 16,804 leak-prone services throughout Massachusetts in 2016, according to the DPU report. And in 2017, $416.7 million dollars were to replace 280.3 miles of leak-prone mains and 18,708 leak-prone services, according to the report.

Massachusetts utility regulators say the age of steel, cast and wrought iron materials in the century-old gas pipes lead to corrosion, and damage from other underground construction projects are factors that contribute to gas leaks.

“The utilities realized a couple years ago this was going to be a big problem,” said Schulman. “They are replacing the main as quickly as possible, about 200 miles of pipes per year, it’s at an incredible pace.”

“Massachusetts has the second-oldest gas infrastructure,” said Schulman. “Baltimore is the only one worse than what we have.”

The DPU report estimates that utility companies will have spent around $66 million to repair over 16,000 leaks in 2017. Backlog repairs take as little as a day and up to 10 years, in National Grid’s case, according to DPU’s report.

Using data filed annually from the gas utilities to DPU, Schulman’s team were able to contextualize it into leaks per mile of street for all 351 cities and towns. In Lynnfield, there were 1.67 gas leaks per mile of street, or roughly 7 percent of households. In Boston, that number is 1.07 leaks per mile, or around 1 percent of households as of 2017.

Gov. Charlie Baker said on Saturday that an independent study will be delivered to the DPU in the next 40 days that looks into the Merrimack Valley gas explosions in September.

“We filed a bill to implement the one recommendation that related to us, that came out of the Department of Transportation safety board report,” said Baker of the over-pressurization gas report. “Signed it new year’s day. Obviously DPU will be working with the gas companies to implement that.”

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