Focus Turns to Aiding Victims of Natural Gas Blasts
By Colin A. Young and Michael P. Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- As residents in the Merrimack Valley try to get back to normal life, state and local officials are eying ways to provide immediate financial aid to victims of the gas explosions and fires there last week while acknowledging it will be a long time before the recovery is complete.
While Eversource and Columbia Gas work to assess and repair the damage from last week’s gas emergency and restore service to parts of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, Gov. Charlie Baker said there is a “desperate need for other resources and services” throughout the weeks-long recovery process.
“In the meantime, there will be short-term needs and a significant increase in humanitarian aid requirements that will exist across the area for the next several weeks that we need to deal with,” he said at a press conference in Lawrence on Tuesday morning.
Baker said a team of people is “working rapidly” to launch a Greater Lawrence Disaster Relief Fund through the Essex County Community Foundation by the end of the week.
“We plan to support needed services, particularly those that relate to daily sustenance and shelter,” the governor said. He added, “The goal is to bridge this gap between the short- and long-term recoveries so people and businesses have the ability to get back to something that feels like normal daily life as quickly as possible.”
Columbia Gas, the utility that provides the Greater Lawrence area with natural gas and is responsible for the gas lines that were the apparent cause of last week’s explosions and fires, announced Tuesday morning that it is making an immediate $10 million donation to the fund.
″$10 million is a lot of money,” Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said. “We’re clear that this is a way for Columbia Gas to show that they are living up to their corporate responsibility, but we know that this is going to be just one way they live up to their corporate responsibility.”
Last year’s state budget surplus could also provide funding to help Merrimack Valley residents and businesses struggling to recover from an ongoing natural gas emergency, according to House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who said he’s confident that lawmakers would unite around an aid package, if necessary.
Before Columbia Gas announced its donation Tuesday morning, DeLeo said lawmakers also stand ready to help “to bring back a normalization of life” in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence communities where overpressurized gas lines led to a series of fires and explosions last Thursday afternoon.
The Legislature has not yet acted on the spending bill Baker filed in July to close out unsettled accounts and spend fiscal 2018 surplus funds, despite warnings from the state comptroller that it should have been done by Aug. 31.
DeLeo said Monday leaders of the Ways and Means committees “have agreed that they’re going to get right on that.” Sen. Joan Lovely, who serves as Senate vice chair for Ways and Means, told reporters Monday that movement on the close-out supplemental budget appeared “imminent.”
During an appearance on WBZ radio Monday night, DeLeo was asked if surplus funds could be steered to those affected by the gas emergency.
“I think that would be a discussion, sure,” DeLeo said. “I think that that’s a place where I think that we could be helpful, if it becomes necessary.”
DeLeo, who met with Baker on Monday afternoon, said the governor had already had “fiscal discussions” with Columbia Gas “in terms of what he may expect of them to get the ball rolling so to speak to make these folks whole, and then we will go from there.”
Columbia Gas CEO Steve Bryant said the company’s $10 million donation was “a step in the long process” of recovering from the gas explosions and fires. Other businesses, including Wynn Resorts, have announced donations to local relief efforts.
DeLeo expressed confidence that a relief appropriation could pass during informal sessions, when any lawmaker can block a bill or move to amend it.
“I do not look at this as any type of controversy,” he said. “I’m fairly confident that we’ll be able to get that done, if necessary.”
Columbia Gas also announced Tuesday morning that it would open a second customer claims center Tuesday afternoon. In addition to the claims center at 1 Market St. in Lawrence, affected residents and business owners will be able to begin the claims process with Columbia Gas at the old town hall at 20 Main St. in Andover between 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tuesday.
“Verbal confirmation of loss, valid photo identification, proof of residency in affected area and an in-person meeting at the Property Claims Center will establish an initial claim and a monetary advance payment toward loss to meet immediate needs for evacuation expenses, food spoilage, child care costs, etc.,” the utility said in its announcement. “Residents are reminded to keep track of receipts and expenses for reimbursement, as well as any claims for child care, lost wages and lost food.”
The gas company, which as of 10:30 a.m. Tuesday had more than 600 technicians working in the area, announced over the weekend that it plans to replace “the entire affected 48-mile cast iron and bare steel pipeline system in the towns of Andover, Lawrence and North Andover with state-of-the-art plastic distribution mains and service lines, and modern safety features such as pressure regulation and excess flow valves at each premise.”
Once the immediate recovery efforts are complete, Columbia Gas and its executives will likely have to answer to multiple panels of lawmakers seeking an explanation of what happened and a playbook for keeping it from happening again.
Writing to Bryant and Joseph Hamrock, the head of Columbia Gas parent company NiSource, U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey on Monday asked “whether the company was sufficiently prepared to respond to an incident of this magnitude, and how we can prevent any similar tragedy in the future.”
The senators posed a series of questions, giving Bryant and Hamrock until the end of the day Wednesday to respond. Citing the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Warren and Markey said the pressure in the Columbia Gas system reached levels 12 times higher than the 0.5 pounds per square inch it was intended to hold.
At least 25 people were injured, an 18-year-old man was killed, and as many as 80 homes and buildings were destroyed when the fires and explosions broke out in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover last Thursday, the senators wrote.
[Katie Lannan contributed to this report.]