After Boston-area explosion, local lawmakers lean toward fast-track replacement of aging pipes
Old cast-iron pipes that carry gas through parts of Berkshire County are being torn out and replaced, with about 48 miles of pipeline left to go.
But given a recent tragedy, some Berkshire County lawmakers suggest that replacement of corroding, century-old pipes should be fast-tracked in the Berkshires — and across the state. Gas fires and explosions killed a teenager and injured at least 25 in three Boston suburbs Sept. 13. The cause is believed to be aging pipes that could not withstand gas pressure levels.
"Maybe they need to accelerate those replacements," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, whose colleague from Lawrence told him the night of the blasts that the area had been rendered a "war zone."
"Maybe instead of giving companies 20 years, maybe it's five to 10 [years]," he said, referring to a 2014 state law that gave gas companies 20 years to replace old pipes.
Columbia Gas of Massachusetts is doing an unprecedented complete pipe overhaul in the Merrimack Valley after the catastrophe that also burned about 80 homes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.
Berkshire County's natural gas supplier, Berkshire Gas Co., began to replace old pipes before the law was enacted. And the company is tending to 248 known gas leaks throughout the county's distribution system.
The safety of natural gas systems everywhere in the Northeast is under scrutiny. Calls for better oversight of gas companies have sounded across the state. Pignatelli and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, are considering the possibility that the leash might need tightening on gas companies, and their state and federal regulators, to make sure the state's gas networks are as safe as possible.
Pipes and pressure
After the Sept. 13 blasts, Berkshire Gas halted work for a "safety stand-down" with all its employees.
"This practice halts all scheduled work and convenes all operations employees to discuss safety standards, practices, procedures and policies," spokesman Christopher Farrell said in an email. He said the company's outside contractors and crews joined this review.
For gas networks, safety measures include replacement of century-old cast-iron and bare-steel pipes that remain in use, mainly in the Northeast. That system includes about 48 miles of pipe that snake through central and north Berkshire County.
It also involves monitoring pressure in the pipes as gas moves from high to low pressure in the distribution system. Berkshire Gas owns more than 760 miles of mains in Berkshire, Franklin and Hampshire counties.
A pressure buildup in Columbia Gas' pipes appears to be the reason for the Sept. 13 blasts, the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed.
Before the Boston-area blasts, gas pressure was found to have been about 12 times what the system was able to hold, according to a letter to Columbia Gas officials from Massachusetts U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey. The lawmakers want to know when the pressure spike was registered by the gas company and how it was allowed to persist.
Federal regulators and lawmakers will continue to investigate. Amid concerns about gas networks everywhere, The Eagle asked Berkshire Gas what safety measures it has in place, including management of pressure and leaks, and the replacement of corroding pipes.
Farrell, in an email, explained how Berkshire Gas regulates pressure.
"The company's distribution system is comprised of a network of regulator stations which work to regulate and maintain system pressures. These stations are monitored around the clock ... this system is maintained at state-of-the-art levels," he said.
The system uses sensory equipment that monitors gas pressures, flow rates, temperature and damage detection, among other things.
The company's last reported gas incident, with one injury, happened in North Adams in 1991. Farrell said that the incident occurred when someone tried to bypass a gas meter, but had nothing to do with a leak or system malfunction. A 2003 incident in Turners Falls destroyed property but was linked to a deficiency in the homeowner's piping, he said.
Farrell said the company does not stint when it comes to replacing mains, which the American Gas Association has said can cost around $1 million per mile.
He said high cost or difficulty in replacing pipes does not result in delays.
Old pipes can brew a perfect storm when something goes wrong, according to one expert.
"If the materials were made to withstand the pressures — plastic and steel usually is — the overpressurization wouldn't affect the structure," said Bob Ackley of Gas Safety USA of Southborough, a leak- and methane-detection company.
But old pipes cannot stand up to overpressurization.
As of 2017, 97 percent of the nation's gas distribution pipes were made of plastic or steel, and cast-iron pipelines have been completely replaced in 19 states, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an arm of the NTSB.
Massachusetts is not one of them, according to the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation. The state has one of the oldest pipeline systems in the U.S.
In 2011, the federal pipeline group responded to several deadly gas explosions around the U.S. by urging federal regulators to continue to support attempts by states to make it possible to raise rates so utilities can replace and repair "high-risk" infrastructure.
By the end of 2017, Berkshire Gas had 48.6 miles of cast-iron pipes remaining in Berkshire County dated from 1879 to 1981. The pipes are in place in Pittsfield, North Adams and Williamstown.
The company has reduced its bare-steel pipe infrastructure to 12.5 miles, as of the end of last year, Farrell said.
R. Don Deaver, a Texas-based engineer and gas industry consultant, called it a "disgrace" that the Berkshire Gas system still has 48 miles of cast-iron pipe.
According to federal data, Berkshire Gas has been steadily replacing its cast- or wrought-iron pipes throughout its service area in the three counties. From 2005 to 2017, the company reduced these from 97 miles to 57.7 miles.
There was also a reduction of bare-steel pipes during that same time, from 38 miles to 15.42 miles.
Berkshire Gas began these replacements before the 2014 state law gave gas companies 20 years to upgrade all risky old mains. Farrell said Berkshire Gas hopes to do this with "state of the art plastic pipeline" before 2034.
But Pignatelli said this timeline should possibly be shortened and that it's time for more oversight of all utilities, to make sure they replace infrastructure when they say they will.
"They always come back with a rate increase, with promises of capital investment," Pignatelli said. "But we have to follow up ... [the utilities] better be investing in the infrastructure. The DPU [Department of Public Utilities] has to get very serious with all these utilities."
Pignatelli also said there could be even more attention to safety and public trust.
"I think they could do an awful lot to reassure all of us, to test their lines and be as transparent as possible," he said.
That transparency could be improved in Massachusetts, according to Pipeline Safety Trust, a gas system watchdog.
That group rated the state's Pipeline Safety Information page on its website as "failing," faulting it for lacking information the public might want.
Deaver, the Texas gas industry consultant, said utilities face too little oversight from government.
"They're in the driver's seat, the regulators are in the back seat and the customers are in the trunk or being dragged behind," he said.
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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