Columbia Gas at Center of Explosions in Recent Past

Columbia Gas has been at the center of a number of incidents in Massachusetts and around the country in the last number of years and has drawn the ire of state officials more than once.

The Massachusetts division of Columbia Gas, formerly Bay State Gas Co., was involved in four investigations in two years that included three explosions, according to state documents.

Investigators on the ground in Lawrence are starting to work through what caused Thursday afternoon’s series of explosions that left one dead, at least 25 injured and hundreds unable to go home.

The most serious incidents occurred in 2012 and 2013, according to state and federal documents.

In 2012, a high-pressure natural gas transmission pipe ruptured and ignited, spewing a wall of flame over an Interstate highway in a rural part of West Virginia north of Charleston. The explosion leveled homes and charred nearly 1,000 feet of highway.

Federal investigators found a subsidiary of Columbia Gas’s parent company at fault, saying the blast could have been prevented, that it failed to discover corrosion and that the pipeline hadn’t been inspected in more than 20 years.

And inspections are one of the issues Columbia’s president, Steve Bryant, recently addressed with state regulators.

State records show that in April, he said the utility needs to raise rates by $45 million to, in part, hire more workers for “leak surveying, investigation, preventative maintenance, repair and emergency response.”

Bryant pointed to “increasingly stringent federal and state regulations,” local law spearheaded by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead.

“Were they inspecting their lines? Do they have trained workers that they’re putting out on the road?” Ehrlich said. “Because all it takes is one little seam that’s not sealed properly or some pipe that’s not put together properly and lives are lost.”

The most recent documents posted online by the state Department of Public Utilities, which only go through 2015, show four significant incidents in two years.

A fire destroyed a trailer in Attleboro in 2013. Investigators concluded a service line joining the gas meter on the side of the home was to blame, but could not determine why the line failed.

And Columbia was involved in three explosions in 2012, including one at a strip club on Worthington Street in Springfield in November that year. Seventeen people were hurt, and the front of the building was blown clean off, causing more than $1 million in damage.

The state investigation concluded a Columbia Gas employee caused that explosion, accidentally puncturing the service line into the club while investigating reports of gas odors. Natural gas leaked into the club for an hour before the distribution line was shut, and ignited soon after.

Last year, the company reported $59.5 million in profit, double the amount from the year before.

When Columbia Gas sought a nearly $30 million dollar rate increase in 2012, then-Attorney General Martha Coakley accused the company of lavish spending on corporate travel, urging them in a press release to instead “Fly Coach.”

“We’re seeing some extraordinary salaries and extraordinary bonuses, but we’re paying for it,” Ehrlich said.

Columbia Gas is in the midst of a roughly $175 million, 20-year project to replace “high risk” main lines and service lines, including a number of line-replacement projects they had just started in the Merrimack Valley, according to a detailed project plan the utility submitted to the state last October.

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