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Recent Massachusetts Explosions Can Happen in Any Gas System

BU expert Nathan Phillips says Merrimack Valley crisis is far from over


One person dead, 25 injured, dozens of homes and businesses scorched or destroyed, a utility on the hook for medical, property replacement, and other bills: that’s the tally after gas lines exploded September 13 in three communities in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, north of Boston, leaving rubble in their wake.

Columbia Gas, the utility serving the communities, says it will replace 48 miles of aging pipelines by November 19. Gas service to 8,600 customers was shut off after the disaster, which happened as Columbia workers were replacing pipes in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover.

With regulation of the underground web of gas pipelines entrusted largely to the utilities themselves, what are the chances that a similar disaster will play out elsewhere? Jittery communities across the country are asking just that question. We spoke to Nathan Phillips, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment and an expert on the subject. Phillips hunts leaks in the country’s natural gas lines, including thousands in Boston alone, and has done extensive research on it.

BU Today: I understand you’ve been at the site. What were you doing there?

Phillips: I first visited the Lawrence Senior Center the Sunday following the explosions to drop off the first of 120 portable induction cooktops. Since electricity was restored a couple days after the explosions, but gas is still shut down and may be for months in thousands of households, the immediate need and the opportunity to provide induction cooktops presented itself. I had familiarity with induction as an alternative to gas. Getting these low-cost and efficient cooktops into homes needing them has been my singular focus over the last week.

I started a Gofundme campaign called “Clean Cooking Now.” As part of initiatives like our BU URBAN (Urban Biogeoscience & Environmental Health) program,  we strive to make our research socially relevant. Moreover, colleagues like Wendy Heiger-Bernays, a School of Public Health clinical professor of environmental health, and her students are mobilizing to take the lead in making sure that the pots and pans that affected residents use with their new induction cooktops are chemically safe.

Do we know the cause of the explosions, beyond the fact that they involved gas lines?

It’s clear that a system-level over-pressurization of the distributed pipeline network occurred, which instantly drove pressure as high as 75 pounds per square inch (PSI)—about the pressure in a commuter bike tire—into the pipelines feeding homes and appliances that should have been operating at 0.5 PSI. Piecing together information from a press briefing, it appears that a routine removal of a pipe from the aging, leaking pipeline system was done without first removing a pressure sensor on that old pipe that had regulated how much gas to feed. When that old pipe was capped and the gas pressure went to zero, the control system was told to feed more pressure into it, without end. 

What are the chances of such explosions happening in aging gas lines elsewhere in the state and country?

The risk profile for gas explosions is “low probability, high impact.” A gas system requires constant vigilance to guard against failures. What happened in the Merrimack Valley can happen in any gas system, as they are centralized, often single point-of-failure network systems with little redundancy. Human error like construction digging strikes are the number one cause nationally of pipeline incidents. The last biggest event from Columbia Gas was a 2012 explosion in Springfield, Mass., caused by a gas worker searching for a gas leak and inadvertently puncturing a gas line; 18 people were injured and 42 buildings damaged or destroyed.

Has the Columbia Gas response to this month’s disaster been sufficient overall?

Financial assistance to the affected is instantly needed for items like meals and consumables, but that is effective only if residents can obtain them rapidly, without standing in long lines and sometimes being asked to return with more documentation. Moreover, in a climate of fear over immigration status, we know that many families are shut out of relief efforts. In terms of financial assistance for getting home appliances, while the commitment to pay for alternative appliances is necessary and was the right thing to do, it is insufficient to address the urgency of the problem. The delivery of hot plates that started six days after our fledgling effort is both an indication of this recognition and evidence that the emergency response could have moved faster.

What should government and utility officials do about this issue that they aren’t doing?

The rollout of hot plates and space heaters in the last couple of days is finally providing relief at a scale that is necessary. There are 8,517 households without gas, a majority of which can’t provide hot meals and showers, likely for months in some cases. This is a dire situation, and hot plates and space heaters help, but are not going to cut it in the winter.

Columbia Gas has just announced that it will compensate household customers to make a permanent switch off gas to heat their homes. This is a remarkable offer by a gas utility, essentially offering people to quit being customers and paying them to do it. This appears to be an admission that Columbia is not going to be able to fix the situation for many in time for the approaching winter, and it’s a green light to a wider commencement of an immediate energy transition. As remarkable is a lack of consideration that the most rapid and cost-effective response that must commence this week is insulation triage. Teams should be fanning out across the region, taping transparent heat films over windows and taping heat-leaking cracks. These measures will work in synergy with modern and available electric heat pumps to save energy and ameliorate expected electricity cost increases.

I already see in communities like my own, Newton, that people are thinking that when the explosions and fires ended, so did the crisis. We must understand that with winter coming and 8,517 homes without gas and a dubious time frame for restoration of energy for heating, a mounting crisis is unfolding before our eyes.

Mutual aid has been amazing, from first responders to locked-out gas workers showing up to help without even being paid. But the mutual aid is going to need to increase to include, for example, regional places of worship to consider creating disaster sanctuary spaces to temporarily house families who may need to abandon their homes if the gas is not back on when cold weather arrives.

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

10 Comments on Recent Massachusetts Explosions Can Happen in Any Gas System

  • Eric on 09.25.2018 at 6:47 am

    The state is complicit in this. They were warned about their lack of qualified inspectors. They don’t inspect individual jobs, leaving that to the utility companies themselves! “Hey wolf! Watch my sheep, will ya?”

    • bill on 10.08.2018 at 9:28 pm

      are we sure who was doing these upgrades… contractors or the company?
      some of those systems run parallel and one not familiar with the multiple systems / pressures may have fed increased erroneous pressure to one of the low pressure system. whatever was the cause… just horrible outcome..prayers for the family of that young man and all those families put out by all this.

  • Nancy Clover on 09.25.2018 at 10:43 am

    Living in the Merrimack Valley, I am witnessing the hardship, inconvenience and stress this is causing people. Bread & Roses a soup kitchen in Lawrence which feed about 100 people a day in Lawrence is without gas and has to use grills outside to make its meals. Yet somehow they trudge on. I have also witnessed the generosity and kindness of people. This is a long term disaster – please continue to help!

  • Eugene on 09.25.2018 at 1:17 pm

    I’m wondering — with the advent of induction cooking and the new energy efficient heat pumps, why is there a need to pipe natural gas to new residential construction? Should the default be insulation, electric heat pumps, and electric induction stove tops, with natural gas only in unusual circumstances? In addition to the gas safety issues (low probability but high impact of a failure), the newer electric technologies are better for the climate, especially as we transition to renewables (wind, solar, etc.).

    • P. Robert Kotiuga on 09.25.2018 at 5:19 pm

      I’ll echo that sentiment. Not only would that be a safe solution, but it would eliminate the disasterous green house effects of having unburnt methane leaking from gas networks.

  • Eve on 09.25.2018 at 5:07 pm

    Thats why I choose induction based appliances. no gas no worry

  • Robert M Holton on 10.16.2018 at 6:08 pm

    I am pretty confused about the article and the author’s proposed remedies. I have several decades of experience as a residential heat mechanic in the mid-Atlantic states. While i have long been aware that New England tends to use fuel oil for heating at a significantly higher rate than PA and MD, I am surprised that there is so little mention of natural gas as being used for heat. I know that if one were to shut off gas to 8600 customers here, that about half would have no or insufficient heat.
    I am also surprised about how heat pumps seem a good method of heating when the average temperature in the Boston area is below that where heat pumps are usable for heating. In homes with heat pumps in MD, there was almost always a natural gas backup with electric backups more common in PA. I don’t know why, but I never saw one oil heat backup.
    Finally, it appears that the accident in question was a rare and atypical one and caused by highly improper procedures, not by a lack of maintenance or general cost cutting. It happened while the company was in the process of doing the maintenance that was required. I do wonder why there were no individual residential pressure regulators outside each residence as I was used to; high pressure mains are stepped down to 15 lb or so for street lines and down to 1/2 lb outside each home at the meter.
    Many of those making comments appear to be quite flip in deciding for others what is best for them, regardless of costs. Fatal fires are sparked by electric about as often as by gas appliances, after all. And natural gas gives off less carbon per BTU than oil.

    • Pipefitter on 10.30.2018 at 8:35 pm

      Can anyone tell me why the pressure regulators at each meter at each residence did not prevent the over pressurization of the piping in each residence . There seems to be a lack or willingness to spend the money and upgrade safety features at each and every residence. How about a motorized valve with a pressure sensor at each house . Pressure goes up beyond set parameters and the valve closes shutting gas off automatically to the house also tripping an alarm which would be monitored by the utility . Installation, maintenance and monitoring of these safety shut off valves should all be done by the utility which provides the gas . God knows they have the money for this. The Government should be asking what safety device is there at each resisdence to prevent each and every house from over pressurization. Are we in the dark ages ?. Control valves are installed on many different heating and cooling systems in buildings all over the world . They monitor pressures temperatures etc. opening and closing accordingly. We have to ask why is this not the case at every household on the natural gas system………I will tell you why , the utility would say that the cost to install and monitor this type of safety valve would be astronomical…….and I would say nothing compared to a human life………shame on the utility , shame on the government , shame on all of us who Who do not stand up and require more safety features at every residence . The dark ages of engineering happening in 2018 at a neighborhood near you.

  • Regulators on 11.01.2018 at 5:05 pm

    Appliances, water heaters, gas logs , gas heaters, outdoor bbq’s, and the supply line into the house ….. ALL have pressure regulators. The gas meter on the side of the house has a gas regulator next to it( always my experience anyway). The house regulators take the street line pressure down to .25 PSI normally (regardless of street pressure). The appliance regulators reduce the pressure from the house gas line down to .14 to .18 psi (4 to 5 in WC) regardless of the input pressure. These regulators are rated to MUCH higher pressures on the order of 30 to 40 times the design pressure. What specifically exploded in the houses ? Even with a line pressure spike, the systems in a house to appliances are all regulated down to design pressures. Even if 75 PSI was introduced to the input of an appliance, result is not a leak or explosion. Clearly something happened but I’m curious what systems in the house failed to the point of explosion.

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