The state agency charged with ensuring the safety of Massachusetts' natural gas system had only a fraction of its inspector positions filled just last month, a staffing deficit that could delay required pipeline and utility audits, a newly-released federal report said.
The report raised alarms just days before explosions and fires rocked the Merrimack Valley, killing one, injuring about two dozen and displacing thousands.
"Without enough inspectors, you might miss something. I think the whole point of having inspectors is to actually catch things before they become catastrophic failures," said state Rep. Lori Ehrlich (D-Marblehead), who has written bills for tighter state regulation of gas infrastructure.
Federal investigators from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration visited the state Department of Public Utilities, the agency responsible for overseeing the 20,000 miles of natural gas pipelines buried under Massachusetts, in late August to wrap up an annual evaluation of the state's safety program.
The report, just released this month, stunned some gas safety experts, including Ehrlich and Bob Ackley, an expert and consultant. He pointed to replacement workers at National Grid, filling in for the union employees that have been locked out all summer, as an extra reason state oversight is critical.
"We have safety issues all over the state," Ackley said. "We've got contractors working all over the state. We've got National Grid in a lockout with contractors running around all over the place."
The federal report noted that, "Due to recent inspector attrition, only three qualified inspectors on staff (sic)."
"At the time of this evaluation only two inspectors are available to perform inspections," it continued.
The report determined that all of last year's inspections happened on schedule, but the feds raised concerns that because of understaffing, "The program will likely have to make some risk based decisions" in the future "that could delay safety reviews."
It is unclear whether any direct line can be drawn between understaffing and last week's explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators point to over-pressurization of a distribution pipeline in Lawrence, and they are looking at a subcontractor's role in a pipeline replacement project there.
"A lot of people refer to this as the Black Swan event: low probability, high consequence," Ackley said.
The federal report noted that the target number of inspectors for the safety program is 10, but again they noted DPU at the time had "only the three qualified inspectors, two more had been hired and a job offer had been made to one more."
"If you don't have enough inspectors to cover the territory then you're apt to miss things which can lead to loss of life," Ehrlich said.
"It wasn't a systemic failure of some kind, it was related to a particular event attached to a particular project," Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters after an event in Lawrence on Tuesday.
After the federal visit, the state scrambled to hire inspectors. Baker said the agency now has eight inspectors on staff and is looking to hire more.
When the NBC10 Boston Investigators pushed a DPU spokesman for more detail, he conceded only six are currently certified to conduct inspections, and he did not answer questions about whether they are actually out inspecting pipelines.
"We need to have an adequate number of trained inspectors on the job to make sure that things are being done right. We depend on them to keep us safe," Ehrlich said.
All utilities have their own inspectors. The DPU inspectors' job is to make sure the companies are following proper procedures and to address any violations.
Rather than showing up to inspect work sites and infrastructure the way a health inspector might go to a restaurant, DPU pipeline inspectors audit the voluminous reports utilities are required to file with the state to ensure utilities are conducting their own inspections and following state regulations, and they follow up on complaints.
They typically do not sign off on individual jobs.
DPU scored very well on its evaluation, but got dinged for overall program performance.
Requests to sit down with the director of DPU or any of the agency's three commissioners did not receive any response.
When NBC10 Boston tried to talk with the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs after a press conference Friday, a spokesman for Baker told a reporter to wait, but later came back to say the secretary had ducked out another way.