Gas blasts near Bos­ton linked to NiSource unit’s work or­ders

Pawtucket Times - - OBITUARIES / REGION -

A se­ries of ex­plo­sions that rocked sev­eral towns north of Bos­ton last month has been linked to work or­ders given to a crew re­plac­ing ag­ing nat­u­ral gas pipes, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral safety in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

Crews con­tracted by NiSource Inc.’s Columbia Gas unit, in­clud­ing an in­spec­tor from the com­pany, were re­mov­ing a cast-iron dis­tri­bu­tion main and in­stalling a plas­tic main, ac­cord­ing to a pre­lim­i­nary re­port by the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board. The re­port, re­leased Thurs­day, didn’t reach a con­clu­sion on the cause of the blasts that are still un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Work­ers re­moved a sec­tion of pipe con­tain­ing sen­sors needed to reg­u­late pres­sure in the sys­tem. The sys­tem then mis­tak­enly reg­is­tered a drop in sys­tem pres­sure and com­pen­sated with a surge of gas into the pipes be­yond max­i­mum lev­els, the re­port said.

The work pack­age de­vel­oped by Columbia Gas “did not ac­count for the lo­ca­tion of the sens­ing lines or re­quire their re­lo­ca­tion to en­sure the reg­u­la­tors were sens­ing ac­tual sys­tem pres­sure,” ac­cord­ing to the NTSB.

The spike in pres­sure trig­gered dozens of ex­plo­sions in homes and busi­nesses across three Mass­a­chu­setts towns on Sept. 13 and killed one per­son struck by a fall­ing chim­ney. The leaks oc­curred in a pipe net­work that served about 8,600 cus­tomers. It snaked through the towns of Lawrence, North An­dover and An­dover, lo­cated about 20 miles north of Bos­ton.

NiSource Pres­i­dent Joe Ham­rock said in a state­ment that the com­pany is lim­ited in what is can say about the in­ci­dent while the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is un­der­way. “How­ever, we can say that, be­cause safety is our top pri­or­ity, in the hours im­me­di­ately af­ter the in­ci­dent we sus­pended sim­i­lar work and en­hanced pro­ce­dures re­lated to our low pres­sure sys­tems,” Ham­rock said.

“I’m very proud of the strong, ded­i­cated team driv­ing the restora­tion ef­fort in the streets and homes,” Ham­rock said. “We con­tinue to ex­pect com­ple­tion by Novem­ber 19th.”

NiSource was down 1.7 per­cent to $24.67 at 3:47 p.m. in New York trad­ing, af­ter ear­lier drop­ping as low as $24.47. The de­cline was roughly in line with its peer group.

“The traders that are watch­ing like hawks prob­a­bly went through that just like you did and didn’t see any­thing that came out that we didn’t al­ready know,” Charles Fish­man, an an­a­lyst for Morn­ingstar Inc., said in an in­ter­view.

Fish­man ex­pects costs of $100 mil­lion from law­suits and fines stem­ming from the ac­ci­dent. NiSource is likely to ask reg­u­la­tors for per­mis­sion to speed up ef­forts to re­place old pipe, a move that could boost earn­ings, he said. Fish­man has a hold rat­ing on the stock with a $26 price tar­get.

“They’ll fine them some­thing, and they’ll ac­cel­er­ate the cap­i­tal ex­pen­di­ture,” Fish­man said. “They’ll give them re­turn on that capex and since it’s ac­cel­er­ated, that in­creases earn­ings. It pretty much washes out in my mind over time.”

The NTSB re­port “raises more ques­tions than an­swers,” Mass­a­chu­setts Sen. Ed­ward Markey said in a state­ment, in­clud­ing whether the util­ity was pre­pared to re­spond to the scale of the dis­as­ter.

“We need to turn over ev­ery stone and shine a light on the work­ings of this com­pany and the en­tire in­dus­try, so that peo­ple can both trust that their gas sys­tem is safe and ver­ify that noth­ing like this will ever hap­pen again,” said Markey, a Demo­crat.

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