Gov. Charlie Baker, R-Mass., on Friday put Eversource Energy in charge of recovery from a series of gas explosions in northern Massachusetts caused by the system of one of its rivals, Columbia Gas.
On Thursday, authorities responded to more than 70 fires in the towns of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover that appear to have been caused by over-pressurized gas lines on the Columbia Gas system. The next day, Baker declared a state of emergency and handed restoration to Eversource, saying “the follow through” from Columbia “was just not there.”
The stock of NiSource, the parent of Columbia Gas, closed down more than 12% on Friday before recovering modestly at the market open on Monday. The multiple explosions are the biggest gas accident in the U.S. since 2010, according to a Reuters analysis, and could mean lawsuits or government fines for Columbia.
The Columbia Gas incident highlights the delicate balancing act of running a natural gas system while underscoring the inherent risks of the explosive fuel.
State fire officials told media outlets Friday they will not know the exact cause of the explosions "for some time," but that "initial focus is on over-pressurization of a gas main." The incident is also under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
More than 8,000 residents in the area were evacuated from their homes last week, and Eversource officials say it could take weeks for the company to conduct safety inspections and restore service to the residences.
"We are looking for every opportunity to expedite that as fast as possible but we will not sacrifice public safety nor do anything to risk the integrity of this system," William Akley, Eversource president of operations, said at a press conference.
On Friday, Baker assigned Eversource the restoration responsibility, publicly chastising Columbia for its response to the disaster.
"On a number of very significant issues, we heard one thing, then something else happened," he said at another press conference.
NiSource said on Friday it is working with the governor's office to develop a plan to replace the 48-mile iron and steel gas system affected by the explosions 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."
The fires are the worst U.S. natural gas disaster since 2010, when a pipeline explosion killed eight people in the northern California town of San Bruno, according to a Reuters review of NTSB reports. Pacific Gas and Electric paid more than $2 billion in fines following the disaster.