The utility involved in a series of natural gas explosions and fires in three Massachusetts communities last month acknowledged Friday it would not meet its original Nov. 19 deadline for restoring gas service to all its customers.
Columbia Gas set a new timeline for complete restoration of between Dec. 2 and Dec. 16, but officials added they expected most residents and businesses to have heat and hot water back before then.
Attorney General Maura Healey blasted the gas company Friday, calling the delay "simply unacceptable."
"Columbia Gas needs to explain why, even after incorporating temporary repairs, it may take until mid-December to restore heat and hot water to families who have already faced these burdens for weeks and weeks," she said. "By November 19, Columbia Gas should provide all impacted residents with either temporary or permanent heat, or appropriate temporary housing, regardless of cost."
Thousands of customers in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover have been without gas service since the Sept. 13 disaster as the utility replaces some 50 miles of gas pipeline.
One person was killed and 25 others injured in the explosions and fires that damaged 131 structures and destroyed five homes. A preliminary report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board this month found over-pressurized natural gas lines as the source, but the investigation is continuing.
Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday called the recovery "painful, frustrating and inconvenient."
"As these challenges persist, we all know the temperatures are dropping," said Baker, who urged residents without heat and hot water to consider taking advantage of temporary housing being offered to them in trailers, apartments and hotels.
Overnight temperatures dropped to near freezing in much of the region.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera also urged residents to take advantage of the temporary housing.
"Don't let distance be deterrent in getting housing. If it’s Tewksbury, if it’s Boston, take the housing now. We are in a disaster zone in disaster conditions," Rivera said. "This is a disaster situation and if you wait until the last moment to allow yourself of a hotel, you’re going to find a busy line."
Baker also called for improved communication between Columbia Gas and affected residents.
Joe Albanese, who was brought in by state officials to oversee the recovery effort, said crews are ahead of schedule in replacing pipeline. The key stumbling block, however, has been assessing damage on a house-by-house basis and replacing damaged gas lines, burners and appliances so they are safe to receive gas.
Officials say crews will now in some cases make temporary repairs to burners so heat and hot water can be restored, with the promise that the equipment will be permanently replaced at a later time.
"Each day that goes past our deadline is a day too long," said Albanese, adding that Columbia Gas is also bringing in three more contractors to add to the manpower involved in the restoration.
"We understand the urgency you all have to return home and reopen your businesses. It's cold outside. The hardship and inconvenience created by this incident is more than just disruptive and devastating," said Albanese.
To date, the utility said it had relit 1,040 residential and business meters, and installed hundreds of new water heaters, boilers, furnaces, dryers and ranges.
Pablo Vegas, chief restoration officer for Columbia Gas, expressed sympathy for the affected residents and reassured them of the work being done.
"We understand this has been a frustrating process for many," Vegas said. "The patience and resilience of this community is inspiring, and we will work day and night to restore and regain our customers' trust in us."
Vegas said the company is doing all it can to reduce suffering by customers.
"But we have to do more," said Vegas. "Every individual, family and business owner that has been impacted by the events of Sept. 13 deserve to know when their lives will be returned to normal," he said.
Residents have been increasingly frustrated with the lack of gas in the city as they struggle to keep warm without any heat or hot water.
"It was 59 degrees, and that’s during the day," Lawrence resident Sherri Deshaies said.
Deshaies and her elderly mother can no longer bear the cold and will be heading to a hotel in New Hampshire for shelter.
"She says she’s sleeping in her bed with double layers of clothing on fully dressed and told me today she puts her hands in her pockets when she goes to sleep," Deshaies said of her mother.
Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan issued a statement saying he shared in the frustration of residents.
"Today's news no doubt leaves many people frustrated and adds many new questions to an already complex crisis. I share in your frustration, and it is my job to ask the vital questions every day until everyone has answers," Flanagan said. "Andover's town officials will remain at the table every day until every pipe, meter and appliance is fixed; every driveway, lawn and street repaired; and every home and business made whole again."