Expert: Gas Explosions Common, More Oversight Needed

Lawrence Gas Explosion

A Lawrence home burns on September 13, 2018 during the Merrimack Valley gas disaster. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — Almost a year after the Merrimack Valley gas disaster and about 585 miles away, there has been another Columbia Gas explosion—and a local industry expert says these incidents are not rare.

In fact, two such explosions happened this week. On Wednesday, a home was leveled and five people were hospitalized in Washington, Pennsylvania in an incident in which Columbia Gas admitted responsibility. Then, on Thursday, an Enbridge pipeline exploded in Kentucky, killing one woman and injuring several others.

Nat Gas Consulting President Mark McDonald's company investigated the Merrimack Valley explosions last year, and is now investigating in Pittsburgh.

McDonald told WBZ NewsRadio's Karyn Regal he's seen the problem of gas explosions get worse in the last year.

"The industry as a whole, I think, can do better," McDonald said. "I've seen an increase personally in gas explosions around the country."

He said the problem is a lack of federal oversight, and added that he's never seen federal personnel on any work site.

"There's nearly no federal oversight," McDonald said. "I worked for a gas company over 25 years, and I never once saw a federal inspector, investigator anywhere on any of my projects, pipeline inspections. They're just nonexistent, so I think the industry really needs an overhaul, and I think the Merrimack Valley incident certainly points to that ... there's just not enough inspectors in the state level. I think there's 14 for the entire state. That's just crazy."

Columbia Gas said in a statement to WBZ NewsRadio that comparing last year's Merrimack Valley explosions with this week's in Pennsylvania would be inaccurate and misleading; in the Merrimack Valley, it was an underground sensor line that caused a system-wide failure, and in Pennsylvania, the incident was caused by a regulator that was not attached to a home.

"Therefore when the new system was engaged and because the pressure regulator was not added, the elevated pressure led to a leak which caused an explosion," a Columbia Gas spokesperson said.

Columbia Gas said it has enacted two of the National Transportation Safety Board's four urgent safety recommendations which the organization gave in the wake of the Merrimack Valley incident.

But McDonald said he believes the industry remains reactive, not proactive, about dealing with issues.

McDonald said another problem is that cases resulting from gas explosions are settled in civil court, and not taken to a full investigative process.

"When a single home blows up, even if a person perishes unfortunately, the feds don't get involved," he said. "It's left to the plaintiffs and the defendants fighting back and forth and coming to a settlement."

In the meantime, the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Bill, named for the young man killed in the Merrimack Valley explosions, has passed in the Senate. McDonald said that bill will help.

"I think the legislation that's been proposed by Sen. Markey is helpful," he said. "More oversight, more rules to comply with. But I think the government needs to take a look at what's happening here and allocate more money to the states to increase their oversight in their own backyard."

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WBZ NewsRadio's Karyn Regal (@Karynregal) reports

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