Plans for Gas Oversight Hearings, Lockout Bill Taking Shape
By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- House leaders are hoping to hold a hearing with senators next week on a bill that would force National Grid to extend health benefits to workers locked out of their jobs since June during a prolonged contract dispute, but remain uncertain why the Senate pushed ahead to schedule separate Merrimack Valley gas oversight hearings without them.
Rep. Thomas Golden, co-chair of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, said the House will hold hearings into the Columbia Gas disaster in the Merrimack Valley regardless of what the Senate does.
“We’re definitely going to hold hearings. There’s no question we’re going to have a hearing,” Golden said.
But the Lowell Democrat said he has held off on scheduling those hearings out of respect for the wishes of local officials like Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera.
“The first instinct of all the House and Senate members was to take immediate action with a hearing but when the speaker and I took the time to meet with municipal leaders a few weeks after the tragedy we were asked to hold off on any hearing until after people were back in their homes with full utilities,” Golden said.
Since the House and Senate jointly announced plans a month ago to hold oversight hearings, the deadline for Columbia Gas customers to be fully restored has been pushed from Nov. 19 to Dec. 16.
Columbia Gas reported Wednesday that about 49 percent of residential gas meters have been restored, and 67 percent of business meters. A week ago, 32 percent of residential meters had been restored and 48 percent of business meters, according to Columbia Gas.
On Monday, about 2,048 workers were engage in residential gas restoration efforts, including 1,080 plumbers, the gas company said.
Senate President Karen Spilka announced Tuesday that the Senate would hold hearings on Dec. 4 in Boston and Dec. 17 in the Merrimack Valley. The House was not included in those plans, despite senior House officials saying they were in contact with the Senate President’s office as recently as Tuesday morning about reaching an agreement on scheduling.
“I’m not quite sure what they’re trying to accomplish, but we’re more than happy to work together,” Golden said. “They haven’t called us to tell us exactly what there plans are.”
The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation announced Wednesday plans to hold a 9 a.m. Monday, Nov. 26 hearing in Lawrence to review responses to the Sept. 13 natural gas disaster. Scheduled witnesses at that hearing include National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt; Mayor Rivera; state Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton; Paul Roberti of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration; Columbia Gas President Steve Bryant; NiSource President and CEO Joe Hamrock, and Accufacts Inc. President Richard Kuprewicz, according to the committee.
Sen. Edward Markey is the member of the committee and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Congresswoman Niki Tsongas and Congressman Seth Moulton also plan to participate in the hearing, according to the U.S. Senate committee.
State Senate officials have said Sen. Michael Barrett, co-chair of the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee, will play a read role in the hearing, but they haven’t been able to say who else will participate in the hearing.
Meanwhile, attention is slowly moving to a bill (H 4960) filed in July by Rep. Jim O’Day that would restrict National Grid’s ability to access public funds for infrastructure repairs and force the company to give workers health benefits until the more-than-four-month lockout ends.
The House admitted the O’Day bill Oct. 25 and the Senate admitted it Tuesday, allowing it to move to committee.
“We’re waiting on the Senate,” Golden said. “We’re very happy the Senate admitted it and the House stands ready to hear it on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday of next week or whenever is convenient for the Senate.”
A spokesman for Senate President Karen Spilka could not immediately be reached for comment.
[Michael P. Norton contributed reporting]