Efforts Stepped Up to Restore Merrimack Valley Gas Service - NECN


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Efforts Stepped Up to Restore Merrimack Valley Gas Service

Columbia Gas Hires Plumbers, Electricians to Expedite Repairs



    Columbia Gas Hiring Extra Help at Job Fair

    Gas company is trying to meet November deadline.

    (Published Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018)

    What to Know

    • Columbia Gas holds job fair today to find skilled plumbers, electricians, and other skilled workers to help restore gas service.

    • Officials say extra staffing is needed in order to restore gas to all customers by the November deadline.

    • National Guard has been activated to hand out hot plates and space heaters to some residents.

    Columbia Gas held a job fair in Lawrence today to find skilled plumbers, electricians, and other workers to aid in the effort to restore gas service to 8,600 customers affected by last week's explosions and fires in Merrimack Valley.

    Many of those who stopped by were offered jobs on the spot as the extra personnel is needed to restore service before winter. The effort could take as long as two months, officials say. Meanwhile, the National Guard has been activated to distribute hot plates and space heaters to those gas customers in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover who are without service.

    While Saturday's daytime temperatures remain mild, the mercury could drop into the 40s and 50s overnight into Sunday. See the latest forecast

    The company said gas service will be restored to all customers by mid-November as they work to replace 48 miles of pipeline. 

    The Sept. 13 disaster killed one person, injured 25 others and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes and businesses in the three communities.

    While most residents who were forced to flee their homes have been allowed to return, thousands remain without natural gas service needed for cooking, hot water and to heat their homes as fall arrives and temperatures begin to drop as soon as this weekend.

    On Saturday, Columbia Gas sought additional help to get the job done. The job fair was held at Greater Lawrence Technical School in Andover.

    "We are asking for plumbers and electricians," said Columbia Gas spokesman Ken Stammen. "On the customer service positions, we are making offers on the spot today."

    "This is going to be extra work for us which is good," said Michael Mooneyhan, who works as a plumber for Ricker Plumbing and Heating. 

    Richard Ricker who owns Ricker Plumbing and Heating was also one of those who walked away with a job. 

    “The inspector was there,” said Richard Ricker who owns Ricker Plumbing and Heating. “The Lawrence inspector. And he said, 'you’re all set'.”

    It was a silver lining under very tragic circumstances.

    "Yea we get work out of it but the poor families that were left out and still are and are suffering," Mooneyhan said. 

    At about the same time as the fair, National Guard troops went door to door in South Lawrence delivering hot plates for families who are currently living without gas.

    "So now people are home," said Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera. "And they have electricity. And now the next step is how do we bring a sense of normalcy to them? And that is, yeah they can get their hands on some food, but their own place to cook it."

    The Padilla family in Lawrence can't believe how long they may have to go without service at their Dunstable Street home. They're already boiling water for baths and showers.

    "Every day, for everyone to take a shower, they need to heat it up in the microwave," said Camila Lopez. "[They] let it cool down and everyone takes a shower with that."

    "We all share the same goal of getting people back to their normal daily life, whether it's a hot shower, a home-cooked meal or the ability to open up a business," said Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who declared a state of emergency last week. "We're bringing every available resource to make this happen."

    Twenty crews are currently deployed to work on the pipeline, with that number increasing to 60 on Monday. By Oct. 8, 195 crews will be working to restore the pipeline. Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Joe Albanese will serve as chief recovery officer for the restoration project.

    Baker and local officials also announced Friday that hotplates for cooking and space heaters for warmth will be distributed to residents without natural gas service.

    The self-contained hotplate units will be delivered door-to-door to Lawrence residents beginning on Saturday and will be distributed to affected Andover and North Andover residents at designated claim centers in those towns over the weekend.

    About 24,000 space heaters will be made available to homes and businesses starting on Monday, but officials said local fire chiefs and electricians must first certify that the devices can be operated safely in each of the homes before they can be used. For homes where space heaters are not an option, "alternative home heating options'' will be explored.

    "Safety will be paramount," said Albanese.

    "I'm not crazy about a space heater, but I mean, if it's going to help," said Joan Mejia of Lawrence.

    Mejia also says he's sick of going to the gym to shower, and he has many questions for Columbia Gas that he says he can't get answered.

    "Are my pipes going to freeze? Am I going to have to leave my house again? That type of stuff," he explained.

    The governor said members of the Massachusetts National Guard have been activated to assist with the distribution of the hotplates and heaters.

    As many as 2,000 natural gas meters could be turned back on within a couple of weeks, according to officials, and the utility hopes to have nearly 200 crews working on the ground by early October.

    Joe Hamrock, the CEO of Columbia Gas' parent company, NiSource Inc., said the company on Wednesday would begin deploying teams to homes and businesses to determine if any damaged appliances need to be replaced before gas can be safely restored.

    "We owe it to this community to make sure everyone's needs are addressed," he said.

    Meanwhile, a claims center remains open for Andover, North Andover and Lawrence residents where customers can file loss and damage claims as well as receive gift cards to cover the costs of food for the week.

    The investigation into the explosions is ongoing. The National Transportation Safety Board said it is looking into work that was underway at a Columbia Gas site at Winthrop and South Union streets in Lawrence.

    The agency said it discovered evidence that pressure sensors had been attached to a gas line that was being taken out of service on the day of the explosions. While the agency has not identified this as the cause, they explained that the sensors are used to indicate when gas is low and more is needed.

    Feeney Brothers Utility Services of Dorchester was one of two subcontractors used by Columbia Gas in Lawrence, according to the city's Public Works Department.

    The company issued a statement Friday confirming that one of its crews was working at the direction of Columbia Gas on a low-pressure to low-pressure gas main tie-in at the intersection of South Union and Salem streets on the day of the gas explosions.

    Feeney Brothers said it is assisting with the NTSB's investigation and four of its crew members have been interviewed by the agency.

    "While the investigation will take time, we have no doubt that Feeney’s crew will be found to have done their work professionally, safely and correctly. We stand by our crew and all our workers," the company said in its statement.

    U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren planned to meet with Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera later Friday to discuss recovery efforts before attending a cookout for affected residents being hosted by the Lawrence Housing Authority.

    Warren and the state's other U.S. senator, Democrat Edward Markey, wrote to utility officials earlier this week that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration had determined that the pressure in gas pipelines prior to the explosions and fires was 12 times higher than it should have been.

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