Lawrence Gas Leak: Main 'Should Have Been Disabled' In 2018

BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — The gas leak that forced evacuations and left the City of Lawrence on edge Friday morning was caused when contractors closed a gas valve that was supposed to have been disabled a year ago.

A joint statement released by the Department of Public Utilities, the City of Lawrence, and Columbia Gas explained that the valve the workers closed was not supposed to be in operation.

"Early Friday morning while conducting a routine check of water valves in preparation of road paving, contractors working for the City of Lawrence inadvertently closed a gas valve, puncturing an active gas main," the statement read. "Preliminarily, it appears that this gas valve should have been disabled as part of pipeline reconstruction in 2018 and was not compliant with DPU standards."

The city, which was rocked by deadly gas explosions and fires in the Columbia Gas disaster just one year ago, spent Friday reliving a nightmare—complete with the same sirens, first responders, and evacuations.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said early Friday afternoon that the threat had been contained.

"The damage to the line was caused by an isolated incident," Gov. Baker said at a 1 p.m. press conference. "[The Department of Public Utilities] continues to investigate, but there is no public safety threat at this point related to gas."

Lawrence Fire Chief Brian Moriarty said there were no direct injuries caused by the gas leak, and there were no fires or explosions this time.

"We will continue to monitor this situation and further investigate the cause, and are prepared to hold all involved parties accountable for any violations or wrongdoing," Gov. Baker said.

Authorities said most of those affected should be able to return to their homes—with the exception of those who live on South Broadway between Andover and Merrimack Streets, or those on South Carver Street, because those areas are directly over the gas line. Those residents can't go home until gas service is safely restored.

It was a Lawrence Police detail that first noticed the smell of gas around 3:15 a.m.

Columbia Gas said they shut off service shortly after, and sent crews door-to-door, accompanied by Lawrence Firefighters, to about 150 customers.

The company identified 45 gas valves that the DPU has ordered them to inspect out of an abundance of caution, and authorities say this work will be finished Saturday.

Before those valves are inspected and declared safe, the DPU ordered all Merrimack Valley municipalities to stop all construction and maintenance projects in the area.

As gas is being restored, Columbia Gas is required to keep sending out mobile leak detection crews, in the form of "sniffer trucks."

Mayor Dan Rivera said that Columbia Gas leadership was responsive during the incident. Rivera has been a major critic of the company after its role in the 2018 gas disaster and that incident's aftermath.

Friday morning, Rivera said officials would work "as long as it takes" until the Lawrence's residents were safe.

According to Columbia Gas President Mark Kempic, the affected line was new, having been installed just last year.

"Our first interest is safety," Kempic said. "We do have to get into each house to make sure no gas has migrated into any of the homes. We will clear each of those homes. We will then shut the gas supply off to that home, test all of the lines, determine if and any repairs need to be made and repair those lines. And then after that, we will begin to restore service to customers."

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross responded to the incident, and the Arlington Middle School was set up as a shelter.

The Wetherbee School and Lawrence Catholic Academy were closed for the day—and Lawrence High School was locked down due to an unrelated, anonymous threat of a potential school shooting—but all other Lawrence Public Schools remained open.

Meanwhile, residents—some still reeling from the months-long aftermath of the city's last gas issue—were dealing with the consequences of Friday's leak.

At Riverside Pizza, which was closed for four months last year after the Columbia Gas explosions, owners sat watching food go bad.

They told WBZ NewsRadio's Karyn Regal that Friday and Saturday were their biggest money-making days, and $15,000 worth of product was lost.

Another resident, Bill, said that after the last year in Lawrence, he's fed up.

"They just put all these brand new pipes in, and they're cracking?" he said. "Oh, this is a safe town to live in. Guess what? I'm moving, far, far away. It's just going to be going on, and on, and on."

WBZ NewsRadio's Karyn Regal (@Karynregal) reports

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