Nearly a year before dozens of explosions and fires ripped through three Merrimack Valley communities, Columbia Gas identified more than 750 miles of leak-prone pipeline that needed to be replaced, according to documents filed with the Department of Public Utilities.
The project would replace 320 miles of gas pipe between 2017 and 2021, according to a plan filed with the DPU by Columbia. It is unclear how much has been replaced, but a project timeline called for 50 miles to be replaced in 2017 and 60 miles in 2018.
All together, Columbia said it has 760 miles of pipe that need to be replaced across its three service areas in Massachusetts. In order to pay for the replacement, Columbia asked the DPU to allow it to pass on $26.8 million to ratepayers.
Columbia did not respond to requests for comment. However, Columbia Gas withdrew its request to increase gas distribution rates by $33 million in the wake of the explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley last week.
The company said it will “focus exclusively on service restoration and customer assistance” and “relieve customers of any impact of a base-rate change that would layer onto the burden of long-term service distributions and outages.”
It is unclear what impact the infrastructure played in last week’s disaster. Officials have said a gas main was overpressurized by 12 times its normal pressure, which led to the leaks, fires and explosions. Authorities have not yet said what caused the overpressurization.
The hundreds of miles of lines that need replacement were included in a lawsuit filed in Essex Superior Court Wednesday on behalf of residents who were forced from their homes for days over the weekend. The lawsuit, filed by national law firm Morgan & Morgan, alleges Columbia’s negligence caused the disaster last week. The suit, which is seeking class-action status, seeks to represent residents of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, Mass., who evacuated on Thursday.
“Our goal here is to ensure the residents in these three towns have access to justice and the company, Columbia Gas, and its parent company NiSource, are all held fully accountable,” said Frank Petosa, a lawyer with Morgan & Morgan. “What we’re seeking to do is hold both companies accountable and ensure all members of the class are able to see justice.”
Petosa said the firm will conduct its own investigation and said Columbia has a history of putting money over safety. He said they will be seeking an injunction to prevent Columbia from operating until it has taken steps to ensure its system is safe.
At least two other firms have begun looking for plaintiffs to represent in additional lawsuits.
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera blasted the companies, saying the firms are just trying to profit off people’s confusion.
“The time to have a conversation about lawsuits is after everybody is home, safe and to have some semblance of normalcy. I think it’s shameful that people are trying to get victims today who are hungry for information,” Rivera said. “They are preying on these people’s desire for information. That needs to stop.”