After Merrimack Valley Gas Explosions, Shake Up at State Regulatory Agency

The head of the Department of Utilities has stepped down and the head of the pipeline safety division is retiring

There has been a major shake-up at the Massachusetts agency overseeing the natural gas industry, less than six months after the deadly explosions in the Merrimack Valley.

Department of Utilities Commissioner Angela O’Connor has stepped down after four years at the agency and one of her top safety directors, Richard Wallace, is retiring after 30 years with the department.

Matthew Nelson, who already held the position of director of electrical power for the agency, will be taking over as commissioner. Before holding that position, Nelson worked for the utility company Eversource.

The changes in leadership come at a time of crisis for the agency. It's been under scrutiny after a young man was killed in a natural gas explosion Sept. 13 and thousands were left without heat for months in Andover, Lawrence and North Andover.

Nelson takes the reigns as the National Transportation Safety Board continues its investigation of Columbia Gas and the severe over-pressurization of a section of the Merrimack Valley pipeline in September.

State Sen. Mike Barrett, who heads the Joint Committee on Telecom & Energy and led a State House hearing into the local natural gas industry post-Merrimack Valley, says Nelson is respected, but there is no room for error.

"The rules of the game have changed," he said. "We cannot afford another Merrimack Valley. The first was horrific—a second and you'll see political heads roll."

The NBC10 Boston Investigators asked Barrett if he thought the departures of O'Conner and Wallace were in any way fallout from the recent incidents.

"I'm not going to speculate, but I will tell you we're in an era of accountability, an era of transparency, everyone is on notice—there is no hiding place should it happen again," he said.

The state is also in the middle of a sweeping safety review by an independent evaluator. The NBC10 Boston Investigators have asked for an interview with the new commissioner. A DPU spokeswoman says they will consider the request.

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