Lawrence hit by explosions a year ago sees gas leak, evacuations


BOSTON (AP) — A gas leak forced the temporary evacuation Friday of hundreds of residents from a Massachusetts city still reeling from a destructive series of gas explosions and fires a year ago.

Residents in about 150 homes in Lawrence evacuated in the early morning hours after a police officer smelled gas around 3:15 a.m. and alerted authorities, officials said.

The leak was located and sealed off by 5 a.m., Columbia Gas of Massachusetts said. There were no reported injuries, explosions or fires.

Gov. Charlie Baker and others declined to say what caused the leak, but Baker said investigators are confident that the leak was isolated and that there’s no threat to public safety.

The state Department of Public Utilities will investigate in the days ahead, he said. Spokeswoman for the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Katie Gronendyke, sent 22News the statement below:

Early Friday morning while conducting a routine check of water valves in preparation of road paving, contractors working for the City of Lawrence inadvertently closed a gas valve, puncturing an active gas main. Preliminarily, it appears that this gas valve should have been disabled as part of pipeline reconstruction in 2018 and was not compliant with DPU standards. Out of an abundance of caution, Columbia Gas has identified 45 gas valves that the Department of Public Utilities has required Columbia Gas and mutual aid partners to immediately inspect and bring into compliance if necessary.

The process of inspecting and remediating these valves, located near surface level of the road, will not require excavating and will be completed by Saturday. Until then, the Department has instructed all municipalities in the Merrimack Valley to suspend all construction and maintenance projects in the affected area until the valves are determined to be safe by the Department of Public Utilities.

The Department will continue to closely monitor the restoration effort and Columbia Gas will be required to continue to use mobile leak detection equipment in the form of ‘sniffer trucks.’ The small number of residents who have not yet returned home should expect to return home following completion of testing of the impacted pipeline to ensure safe operation. The Department’s investigation into the incident is ongoing.”

Katie Gronendyke, Press Secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs

By Friday afternoon, electricity and gas were gradually being restored, and the majority of residents were allowed to return to their homes.

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said the city would continue to operate a temporary shelter for the remaining residents.

Another, a smaller gas leak was also reported Friday afternoon. It was quickly resolved and not related to the larger morning episode, Rivera said.

“It’s a strange thing to be back talking about gas only a year after this thing happened,” he remarked at one point.

Columbia Gas, which has been blamed for last year’s disaster, said its crews were not working in the area at the time.

The line was among miles of new gas pipelines the company has installed across the region to replace old cast iron pipes, it said.

“We know that it was not systemic across the area,” said Mark Kempic, the company’s president. “That’s why people should feel safe.”

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded this week that Columbia Gas poorly planned a routine pipeline replacement project in Lawrence, causing natural gas overpressurization that led to the explosions and fires in homes and businesses on Sept. 13, 2018.

One person died, dozens of others were injured, about 100 structures were damaged, and thousands of residents and businesses were left without heat or hot water, for months in some cases.

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