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National Grid Brass Declines Invite to Discuss Gas Concerns in Leominster

November 14, 2018

LEOMINSTER -- Representatives of National Grid declined an invitation from city officials to publicly discuss concerns over local gas leaks, citing ongoing tensions with union employees as an explanation.

“It’s very frustrating on my part,” said City Council President Rick Marchand. “I try the best I can to serve the community with the greatest of diplomacy and there’s a tipping point when you have a problem and you can’t bring people to the table.”

Councilors formally requested the meeting, which would have been held last Tuesday, on Oct. 9.

According to the invitation drafted by City Clerk Katelyn Huffman, councilors were concerned by several known gas leaks in the city, specifically listing ones at the intersection of Grant and Union streets, Beth Avenue and Central Street, and one in the area of City Hall, which Marchand said Tuesday had nearly canceled this year’s Johnny Appleseed Festival due to the possibility of safety risks.

The council also noted in the invitation that there had been a “lack of communication with the city, specifically when closing roads or beginning work that obstructs safe traffic flow,” and asked that the company provide an action plan to “correct the lack of communication and to address concerns of gas leaks.”

In response, National Grid sent an Oct. 27 letter back to the council, explaining its decision not to attend the meeting.

“As you may be aware, we are currently operating work continuation plans in parts of our gas territory in Massachusetts, as two of our labor contracts affiliated with the United Steelworkers have lapsed,” read the letter.

United Steelworkers, the union that represents many of National Grid’s employees, have been locked out of their jobs since June when the two sides could not agree on a new labor contract.

“Given the current environment, however, we do not believe it is effective nor useful to engage with our unions in public debate,” read the letter.

National Grid also noted that the leaks at Grant and Union streets and at Beth Avenue and Central Street have been “permanently repaired,” and said the company would be more than willing to meet with city officials to discuss gas safety and communication methods.

Though the meeting would have been public, Marchand said it would have only been a conversation between National Grid and council members as there would have been no scheduled forum for the public to bring up the issue of the union dispute while the company’s representatives were still present.

According to records obtained by the Sentinel & Enterprise in September, nearly half of the city’s 122 miles of gas distribution lines are “leak prone,” which is nearly twice the state average. This issue, National Grid explained at the time, is due to gas line infrastructure being roughly a century year old in Leominster.

While he said the frequency of leaks in the area has been a safety concern for himself and other residents, Marchand was more critical of National Grid’s inability to communicate repair schedules to the city and its residents when reached for comment Tuesday.

He referred specifically to one repair carried out on Granite Street last month that shut down traffic on Granite Street the same day “hundreds of students” were scheduled to take the SATs at Leominster High School.

When reached for comment about the city’s efforts to communicate their concerns to the company, National Grid responded with a statement saying, “We notified the city we will be unable to attend but have offered to provide the information they have requested, and to meet individually with city officials about their concerns.”

Though hopeful National Grid will meet with the city, Marchand alluded to the possibility that declining the council’s invitation could have impacts on future dealings with the company.

“As far as I’m concerned, the door is always going to be open but until they come down it’s going to be difficult for me to support any of their legislative requests,” he said.

Follow Peter Jasinski on Twitter @PeterJasinski53

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