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Merrimack Valley Residents Concerned After Learning Gas Restoration Will Take 2 Months

Hotplates for cooking and space heaters will be distributed to residents without natural gas starting Saturday

What to Know

  • Columbia Gas announced Friday that they plan to have service restored to all residents by Nov. 19 after last week's gas explosions.
  • More than 8,000 customers in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover are still without gas service in the wake of the disaster.
  • Hotplates for cooking and space heaters for warmth will be distributed to affected residents beginning on Saturday, officials said.

Columbia Gas officials said Friday that it will be two months before all residents of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover affected by last week's explosions and fires have their service restored.

The company said gas service will be restored to all of the roughly 8,600 affected customers by Nov. 19 as they work to replace 48 miles of pipeline. The Sept. 13 disaster killed one person, injured 25 others and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes and businesses in the three communities.

While most residents who were forced to flee their homes have been allowed to return, thousands remain without natural gas service needed for cooking, hot water and to heat their homes as fall arrives and temperatures begin to drop as soon as this weekend.

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The Padilla family in Lawrence can't believe how long they may have to go without service at their Dunstable Street home. They're already boiling water for baths and showers.

"Every day, for everyone to take a shower, they need to heat it up in the microwave," said Camila Lopez. "[They] let it cool down and everyone takes a shower with that."

"We all share the same goal of getting people back to their normal daily life, whether it's a hot shower, a home-cooked meal or the ability to open up a business," said Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who declared a state of emergency last week. "We're bringing every available resource to make this happen."

Twenty crews are currently deployed to work on the pipeline, with that number increasing to 60 on Monday. By Oct. 8, 195 crews will be working to restore the pipeline. Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Joe Albanese will serve as chief recovery officer for the restoration project.

Baker and local officials also announced Friday that hotplates for cooking and space heaters for warmth will be distributed to residents without natural gas service.

The self-contained hotplate units will be delivered door-to-door to Lawrence residents beginning on Saturday and will be distributed to affected Andover and North Andover residents at designated claim centers in those towns over the weekend.

About 24,000 space heaters will be made available to homes and businesses starting on Monday, but officials said local fire chiefs and electricians must first certify that the devices can be operated safely in each of the homes before they can be used. For homes where space heaters are not an option, "alternative home heating options'' will be explored.

"Safety will be paramount," said Albanese.

"I'm not crazy about a space heater, but I mean, if it's going to help," said Joan Mejia of Lawrence.

Mejia also says he's sick of going to the gym to shower, and he has many questions for Columbia Gas that he says he can't get answered.

"Are my pipes going to freeze? Am I going to have to leave my house again? That type of stuff," he explained.

The governor said members of the Massachusetts National Guard have been activated to assist with the distribution of the hotplates and heaters.

As many as 2,000 natural gas meters could be turned back on within a couple of weeks, according to officials, and the utility hopes to have nearly 200 crews working on the ground by early October.

Joe Hamrock, the CEO of Columbia Gas' parent company, NiSource Inc., said the company on Wednesday would begin deploying teams to homes and businesses to determine if any damaged appliances need to be replaced before gas can be safely restored.

"We owe it to this community to make sure everyone's needs are addressed," he said.

Meanwhile, a claims center remains open for Andover, North Andover and Lawrence residents where customers can file loss and damage claims as well as receive gift cards to cover the costs of food for the week.

Columbia Gas will hold a job fair on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Greater Lawrence Technical School at 57 River Road in Andover. The gas company is seeking plumbers, electricians, customer service representatives and IT professionals interested in working on the restoration process.

The investigation into the explosions is ongoing. The National Transportation Safety Board said it is looking into work that was underway at a Columbia Gas site at Winthrop and South Union streets in Lawrence.

The agency said it discovered evidence that pressure sensors had been attached to a gas line that was being taken out of service on the day of the explosions. While the agency has not identified this as the cause, they explained that the sensors are used to indicate when gas is low and more is needed.

Feeney Brothers Utility Services of Dorchester was one of two subcontractors used by Columbia Gas in Lawrence, according to the city's Public Works Department.

The company issued a statement Friday confirming that one of its crews was working at the direction of Columbia Gas on a low-pressure to low-pressure gas main tie-in at the intersection of South Union and Salem streets on the day of the gas explosions.

Feeney Brothers said it is assisting with the NTSB's investigation and four of its crew members have been interviewed by the agency.

"While the investigation will take time, we have no doubt that Feeney’s crew will be found to have done their work professionally, safely and correctly. We stand by our crew and all our workers," the company said in its statement.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren planned to meet with Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera later Friday to discuss recovery efforts before attending a cookout for affected residents being hosted by the Lawrence Housing Authority.

Warren and the state's other U.S. senator, Democrat Edward Markey, wrote to utility officials earlier this week that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration had determined that the pressure in gas pipelines prior to the explosions and fires was 12 times higher than it should have been.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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