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Jim Marioles has been locked out of work for 14 weeks with no end in sight to the benefits disputes between his United Steelworkers Union Local 12012 and National Grid.
These are trying times for the workers who have been visiting communities throughout the state asking town officials to place a moratorium on non-emergency National Grid work, warning of safety hazards when inexperienced workers handle gas pipes.
With three decades of experience in working with gas throughout the region, Marioles watched with disbelief at the Sept. 13 gas explosions that occurred in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence, igniting about 80 houses and causing the death of an 18-year-old man.
“Experience goes a long way in making sure that everybody’s on board with the whole process and nothing gets missed,” he said.
The three communities, only 20 miles east of Westford, are serviced by Columbia Gas of Westborough, a unit of NiSource, Inc. of Merrillville, Indiana. Marioles and his union members are employees of National Grid which was not involved in the gas explosions and does not provide gas to the three impacted communities. National Grid supplies gas and electricity to Westford.
Columbia employees were working on the gas lines on Sept. 13 when the ignitions and explosions occurred. Evacuations were mandatory in all three communities and thousands were without power. Columbia Gas offered no explanations. On Sept. 21 the company issued a press release saying its “recovery and replacement plan will aim to have service restored to all homes and workplaces by November 19,” meaning residents of the three communities will live without gas for at least two months.
In a press conference, NiSource President and CEO Joe Hamrock said Columbia Gas employees and contracted construction teams will soon begin installing “a safe and modern energy system.” Gov. Charlie Baker has deployed the National Guard to help deliver almost 7,000 hot plates to customers for cooking meals. Next week, electricians, plumbers and assessors will oversee the installation of 24,000 space heaters in homes. Damaged household appliances will be replaced or repaired.
But Columbia’s press release offers no explanation as to what happened, saying only that “a series of fires broke out and explosions occurred…related to the delivery of natural gas.”
Marioles, of Westford, speculated that it had to do with over-pressurization.
“…your distribution system has different pressure lines. In some cases it’s 60 pounds for the ease of transporting, but most of your gas that you have for your homes — heating, hot water, — only needs a quarter of a pound, a 7-inch water column,” he said. “How the line got over-pressurized, they were doing quite a bit of work from what I understand. That’s something that’s been ongoing with a lot of companies replacing aged pipe out in the field…”
Columbia Gas was in the midst of replacing cast iron pipes with plastic piping using employees and contractors when the explosions occurred.
In an online video, Robert L. Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board — the federal agency conducting the investigation — said regulators played a role in the disaster. Natural gas flows through at 75 pounds per square inch and should come out at one-half psi, he said.
“There are temperature sensors, flow sensors, that monitor the downstream pressure and flow rate from these regulators. If the flow rate and pressure get too low, it will signal to the regulator to open up the valve to allow more flow. It is like the thermostat in your home for heating,” he said.
Sumwalt said investigators are looking at a Columbia Gas construction site where pressure sensors were attached to a gas line that was being capped off and taken out of service on Sept. 13. The investigation will answer whether this had any affect on the over-pressure situation and why a sensor was attached to a gas line that was being taken out of service, Sumwalt said.
The regulator is located in the ground at South Union and Winthrop Streets in Lawrence and the construction site where the pressure line was being capped, is located about seven blocks away at South Union and Salem Streets.
On Sept. 13, 18-year-old Leonel Rondon of Lawrence was killed when a house on Chickering Road in Lawrence exploded sending the chimney crashing onto the parked car in the driveway he was occupying.
The NTSB investigation is expected to take between 12 and 24 months, Sumwalt said.
Marioles, who is vice president of his union, and other union members, have asked Westford selectmen and boards from communities across the state to place a moratorium on non-emergency permits for gas connections until the lockout is over.
Negotiations over benefits broke down in June between the union and National Grid. The company locked out the workers in place of contractors. The union members have cautioned town officials throughout the state that there is no substitute for the experience they bring to the job.
But after three appearances at Westford selectmen meetings, the union representatives were unsuccessful in convincing the board to take action. Selectman Chairman Scott Hazelton said selectmen have no plans to revisit the matter despite the Andover/North Andover/ Lawrence incident.
“Given present information, the Board of Selectmen will not revisit the moratorium request at our Sept 25 meeting,” he stated. “The incident did not occur in National Grid territory, and as yet, there is not an official indication of cause….Westford town leadership is being regularly informed by MEMA (Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency) on developments. Should there be a reason to believe safety in Westford is at risk, we would certainly re-visit the moratorium decision.”
Despite his 31 years of experience, Marioles wonders how the tragedy occurred.
“…how did this happen? Right from engineering to supervisory to out in the field. You have to make sure every side talks to each other, each department,” he said.