World: Smoke settles in Massachusetts as residents ask, what happened?

Smoke settles in Massachusetts as residents ask, what happened?

LAWRENCE, Mass. — For miles around, the neighborhoods were empty and silent. Stores were dark, schools closed, sidewalks empty. At corners, the stoplights were powerless and blank, but it didn’t really matter since only a few cars ventured out.

The jarring, still-life scenes across parts of three Massachusetts towns Friday followed a chaotic, cacophonous night of explosions and gas-fueled fires that killed one person, injured more than 20 others, left behind charred homes and piles of rubble, and drove thousands of people from their homes.

State and federal investigators said they were searching for the cause of the sudden chain of incidents in parts of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. But political leaders and residents expressed growing frustration and impatience with Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, whose natural gas lines have been a central focus of inquiry.

As weary residents, some of whom are staying in shelters, complained that the company had failed to explain what caused the explosions or to quickly make repairs, Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency. The step was needed, he indicated, to remove Columbia Gas from leading the repair of the gas lines. Announcing that he was turning the efforts over to a different gas company, Eversource, the governor was pointed in his criticism of Columbia Gas.

Baker said the gas company was “inadequately prepared” for the aftermath of the explosions.

“Today, on a number of very significant issues, we heard one thing, and then something else happened,” Baker said. “It raised questions about the leadership’s ability to actually deliver to the people of Massachusetts.”

During a brief and testy news conference later, Steve Bryant, the company’s president, declined to go into details about what had caused the explosions and defended the company’s handling of the aftermath.

“We are sorry and deeply concerned about the inconvenience,” he said. “This is the sort of thing that a gas distribution company hopes never happens.”

The authorities were looking at the possibility that gas may have been placed under a level of pressure that was too high for the pipelines it was moving through, creating cascading crises in more than 8,500 homes and businesses across the three towns.

“All we can say at this point is that the investigation is in its very preliminary stages,” Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said.

One of the deadliest gas accidents in recent memory occurred in 2010 in San Bruno, California, when an electrical failure sent high-pressure gas into an old and faulty pipeline. The ensuing fireball killed eight people and destroyed 38 houses.

Since then, utility companies have been pushed to improve safety and update old infrastructure, an expensive proposition.

In Massachusetts, where some pipelines are a century old, state lawmakers passed a law in 2016 that required utility companies to fix the most significant gas leaks. In April, Bryant, the head of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, requested permission to increase rates to pay for upgrades to aging infrastructure. On the day of the explosions, the company had announced that it would be upgrading gas lines in Merrimack Valley, which includes the three municipalities that were hit with fires.

In old mill towns, like Lawrence, some pipes predate the advent of natural gas and were created for another substance, called coal gas. Replacing old pipe with new can cost as much as $1.9 million a mile, said Nathan Phillips, a Boston University professor who has been an environmental activist working on the issue of gas leaks.

About a third of the Massachusetts gas pipeline system is leak-prone and old, Phillips said.

The fallout from the explosions was overwhelming: Thousands of people were being urged to stay out of their homes, which were deemed unsafe, and others were allowed to return but told not to turn their natural gas back on. As many as 80 buildings had been burned. And some 400 people had wound up sleeping in five shelters that were hastily opened overnight; some of them were likely to be there again Friday night and, with no promises from officials about when this would be over, maybe more nights.

Many residents who had abruptly fled their homes without their medications or pets were calling town officials seeking escorts to return home to retrieve essentials. Others who had stayed in their homes were coping with a different problem: no electricity. More than 17,000 customers were without power by Friday afternoon.

In South Lawrence, Jason Tibbitts, 45, was one of the few people around. Worrying about looters, he said he had stayed put after sending his family to stay with relatives.

As it turned out, all was quiet. Most people had left and the streets were empty.

“Normally, there’s lots of noise here,” Tibbitts said, standing on his porch and peering out at the deserted street.

Tibbitts said he was awakened before dawn Friday by gas inspectors, who were checking meters in the neighborhood. A huge fire truck trained its spotlights on his house while inspectors went inside. Yes, they confirmed, he had no gas and no power.

The investigation into the cause is being led by the National Transportation Safety Board, with help from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, whose officials arrived in Massachusetts overnight.

Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California who has studied gas pipeline accidents for 30 years, said he had never seen one spread across such a large geographical area.

“All the other pipeline accidents that I have looked at have been very localized,” he said. “This one is a mystery to me. Why you have so many houses in such a dispersed area? I have not seen anything of this magnitude.”

Whatever the cause, people here were growing impatient for answers.

Dan Rivera, the mayor of Lawrence, had a brutal assessment, describing Columbia Gas as “the least informed and the last to act.”

“They are hiding from the problem,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Katharine Q. Seelye and Farah Stockman © 2018 The New York Times

Source: Pluse ng

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