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Foundation being set up for victims of gas explosions

September 18, 2018
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Residents stand in a block-long line outside a customer help center staffed by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts in Lawrence, Mass., Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. Dozens of homes were destroyed or damaged, a teenager was killed and dozens of people were injured in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover following a failure last week in the area natural gas delivery service. Federal officials say their investigation is partially focused on pressure sensors that were connected to a gas line that was being taken out of service shortly before the blasts. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

BOSTON (AP) — A relief fund is being set up to help Massachusetts residents whose lives were disrupted Thursday by a series of natural gas fires and explosions.

The announcement was made Monday by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and leaders of the three affected communities. Baker wants to have the foundation running by the end of the week.

The announcement comes as Massachusetts lawmakers said they’re holding off on oversight hearings until after the National Transportation Safety Board completes an initial review of the incident.

The donations to the foundation will be in addition to payments from Columbia Gas, the utility serving Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, and payouts from insurance companies. Columbia Gas continues to process claims and distribute gift cards to help residents buy items like groceries.

One person died and about 25 were injured in the explosions last week.

Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo said his first instinct after learning of the fires was to immediately call for oversight hearings. He decided instead to let the NTSB conduct its review first.

“Maybe that’s something we might be able to build upon,” he told reporters at the Statehouse.

Residents in communities north of Boston that were rocked by natural gas explosions have been given the green light to return home. (Sept. 17)

Democratic Senate President Karen Spilka also didn’t rule out future oversight hearings.

Baker said the NTSB report will become a “kind of the guidepost for all the issues around fines and penalties.”

Baker said that he’s spoken face-to-face with the CEO of Columbia Gas’ parent company, NiSource and said “we’re going to expect you to step up in a big way.”

“We should keep really good records — and we will — to make sure that everything that should get billed back to Columbia related to the outage and all the rest, does,” Baker told reporters Monday.

Joe Hamrock, chief executive of NiSource said Sunday the company is taking full responsibility for what happened and is “in this for the long run.” Columbia Gas said that it would replace 48 miles of pipeline in the communities.

Baker’s Democratic rival Jay Gonzalez said Monday there needs to be changes at the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to improve oversight of the natural gas infrastructure, including hiring more inspectors and speeding repairs of leaking gas pipelines.

“The current system of oversight for Massachusetts’ natural gas infrastructure is woefully under-resourced,” Gonzalez said, noting the department has just eight inspectors to monitor nearly 21,000 miles of natural gas pipelines.

Baker said the department is hiring an additional three inspectors which he said would put the agency “basically in the same place they’ve been dating back into the previous administration.”

Slowly life was beginning to return to normal as first electricity, then gas service, was being restored.

In Lawrence, students will return to school Tuesday for the first time since the explosions and fires. Schools in Andover and North Andover opened again on Monday.

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