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Massachusetts Probes Two Gas Blast Areas

December 3, 2012
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The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) will focus on two areas as it investigates the recent natural gas explosion on the Columbia Gas Co. of Massachusetts' system that rocked Springfield, MA -- when the sidewalk markings indicating the location of the distribution system were made and why they were incorrect, a department spokeswoman told NGI.

The DPU will check to see whether the gas distribution company is complying will all state and federal regulations, said DPU spokeswoman Krista Selmi. She noted that it was "premature to put a timeline" on the investigation, saying it could take days, if not months.

According to the findings of the state Fire Marshal Stephen Coan and the DPU, an unidentified employee of Columbia Gas "accidentally punctured" a pipe on Nov. 23 in the vicinity of a strip club on Worthington St., which was the epicenter of the explosion, damaging 42 homes and businesses and injuring 18 people. There were no deaths and the injuries were minor. The dollar amount of the damages still is being assessed. Investigators said the Columbia Gas employee was following incorrect markings on the sidewalk outside of the strip club that indicated the location of the gas line.

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts President Steven Bryant defended the employee, saying that he was acting according to company procedure when he responded to the smell of gas. The long-term employee "responded to the leak and in the course of looking for the leak, accidentally struck the line and instructed everyone to evacuate. He shut off the gas main as well," said Michael Banas, a spokesman for Columbia Gas parent NiSource.

"He followed protocol in establishing where the gas line was located," said Sheila Doiron, a spokesman for Columbia Gas. One week after the explosion, the city of Springfield was continuing to clean up the wreckage.

Springfield Fire Commissioner Joe Conant told reporters that a call reporting a strong gas odor at the Scores Gentleman's Club came in at 4:20 p.m., and the explosion happened at 5:25 p.m., about 15 minutes after the gas was shut off.

The explosion, which could be heard for miles, damaged homes and businesses in a three to four-block radius, displacing hundreds of residents. Some of the buildings "may be uninhabitable and will have to be torn down," said Lieutenant Robert Moynihan of the Springfield Police Department.

It's "more than likely that they [Columbia Gas] will be fined" for the accident, a source said.

Utility officials were responding to reports of a gas odor when their leak-detecting probes "went off the charts" at the strip club, Moynihan said. The gas workers got indications that the building was about to blow and ran for cover behind a utility truck -- along with firefighters and police officers -- Mark McDonald, president of the New England Gas Workers Association, told AP. Much of the area had already been evacuated.

"As a result, nobody [was] killed...We're very fortunate," Moynihan noted. The aftermath of the explosion "looks like a war zone in the Gaza strip," he told NGI. The gas company opened a claims center last Monday at Springfield City Hall for residents and businesses that were affected by the Nov. 23 explosion.

The incident in the western Massachusetts city of 150,000 came within days of the release of a study by Boston and Duke universities, which concluded that Boston's aging urban natural gas pipeline infrastructure is rife with leaks (see NGI, Nov. 26). The researchers identified 3,356 methane leaks across all 785 roads in Boston. Most of the leaks are tiny, but six locations had gas levels higher than the threshold at which explosions could occur.

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