An unprecedented tragedy struck a small portion of eastern Massachusetts last week when dozens of houses in the towns of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover in the Merrimack Valley began to explode, as if spontaneously combusting. One 18-year-old man was killed when a chimney flew off of an exploding house and landed on his parked car, and an additional 25 people were injured.
The shocking disaster was caused by natural gas leaks that forced 8,000 people out of their homes and the governor of Massachusetts to declare a state of emergency. Some frightened residents even thought that their normally sleepy towns were under attack, while others described the experience as “Armageddon”.
It is suspected that the gas lines in the afflicted eastern Massachusetts towns were over-pressurized and outdated. In fact, Columbia Gas, a local subsidiary of Indiana-based NiSource and the company responsible for the area’s natural gas supply at the time, had announced plans to upgrade the aged infrastructure on Thursday of the same week. After the explosions, Columbia Gas was shutting down gas meters and conducting safety inspections in order to allow the 8,000 evacuated residents to return to their homes. However, according to some officials, Columbia Gas was slow to respond to the disaster, and many politicians and residents are not convinced of the company’s competence in dealing with the tragedy and its aftermath. In the words of Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, “Since we first got word of this incident, the least informed and last to act has been Columbia Gas.”
Furthermore, this is not Columbia Gas’ first failing. In fact, it’s not even their first explosion. In 2012, an international natural gas pipeline operated by Columbia Gas Transmission exploded in Sissonville, West Virginia, destroying three homes in what was very fortunately a rural and sparsely populated area. In 2014, a Columbia Gas pipeline exploded in Springfield, Massachusetts, injuring 21 and destroying a strip club. A year later, in 2015, a Columbia Gas line leaked in Upper Arlington, Ohio, causing yet another explosion and an ensuing fire that caused nearly $10 million worth of damage. According to a USA Today analysis of federally sourced data, Columbia Gas manages 471 miles of some of the nation’s oldest and most leak-prone gas pipelines.
As widespread criticism and local outrage from officials and the public alike continued to mount on Friday, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker invoked a provision of state law allowing him to take the problem out of the hand of Colombia Gas, and instead the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities turned management of the disaster over to Eversource, an electric and gas company with a presence throughout New England.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which has jurisdiction over all domestic pipeline accidents, is investigating the explosion sites with hundreds of gas technicians employed through the night over the weekend, but we may be waiting weeks for any clear answers. As of Sunday, the evacuated residents of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover in the Merrimack Valley were allowed to return to their homes, but it could be a number of weeks before the entire power system is restored. Related: The U.S. Calls On Russia To Cap Soaring Oil Prices
This tragedy, apart from the human loss and considerable trauma caused to the afflicted communities, may also lead to extremely negative consequences for a region that was already having a hard time meeting its own energy demand. For the last few years, state and local governments around New England, but particularly in Massachusetts, have been battling against the construction of several new natural gas pipelines due to environmental concerns and clearly well-founded fears of disaster.
For a community that was already in opposition to pipeline construction, an unprecedented pipeline disaster of this nature could make any new natural gas projects all but impossible to greenlight in the state of Massachusetts. That being said, residents are already aware of just how grueling a natural gas shortage can be. Just last winter, in the midst of a series of cold snaps, the region was left with a natural gas shortage. Gas prices skyrocketed accordingly as local utilities had to turn to other, much dirtier fossil fuel sources like coal and petroleum, increasing the region’s carbon footprint dramatically. Boston even went so far as to import liquefied natural gas all the way from Russia.
Without natural gas, New England is not left with a lot of viable alternatives. Thanks to the 1920 shipping law called the Jones Act, it is extremely difficult to ship natural gas domestically. Another long-term solution could be nuclear, but that’s hardly more comforting disaster-wise, and faces a whole other set of bureaucratic hurdles. Solar, wind, and hydro, for their part, are simply not going to cut it in a harsh New England winter (bomb cyclone, anyone?).
Perhaps the real question is, how far will Massachusetts allow the energy crisis to go in the interest of environmental responsibility and a feeling of greater security? Or, how cold and broke will Bay Staters get before they allow cheap, abundant natural gas back into their backyards?
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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