EDITORIAL: Don't relax gas safety standards

The Salem News, Beverly, Mass.
·3 min read

Apr. 19—Forgive anyone living in south Lawrence their skepticism over the natural gas industry's claims, raised again this month, that it doesn't need the oversight of licensed engineers in order to repair or build gas lines in the street.

Massachusetts lawmakers passed a bill months after the Merrimack Valley gas disaster, signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in December 2018, calling for an engineer's review of gas line projects as a safety backstop. Regulators are just now putting rules to paper, and the industry is shaking the yoke.

As Statehouse reporter Christian Wade reports, the industry has floated a list of changes to the proposed rules, narrowing the kinds of projects that would be subject to an engineer's seal. Jose Costa, with the Northeast Gas Association, told an April 8 hearing of the Department of Public Utilities that improvements to pipeline safety protocols make such reviews unnecessary. "Some of the proposed prescriptive requirements in this rule-making are already being addressed through other methods and programs," he said, according Wade's account of the meeting.

Maybe it's overly cautious, but count us squarely in the camp of the professional engineers who argue that lines should be drawn broadly in deciding which projects are deemed complex enough to warrant review.

It's encouraging that the industry — encouraged by federal regulators, to be sure — is paying closer attention and doing more to make construction work safer. But it's audacious to suggest, not three years after the tragedy and destruction caused by the failures of the former Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, that the state should let down its guard.

The debate over requiring a licensed engineer's seal on plans for utility work unfolds on a larger stage than just Massachusetts, of course. And it involves many more interests than just gas utilities. The basic issue is the added cost and complication of having plans reviewed and certified by professionally licensed engineers. On a national level, engineering groups have worked to challenge and undo exceptions to review requirements in a range of fields, particularly when public safety or environmental protection are involved. Mining and solid waste landfills are just two examples.

But, as Wade reported on the one-year anniversary of the Merrimack Valley disaster, the gas industry has been especially effective at advocating for, and winning, exemptions to engineering review.

A majority of states do not require this level of scrutiny for gas line work. And when Congress passed a law last year calling for heightened safety rules for gas utilities — named for Leonel A. Rondon, whose death was the single fatality attributed to the Merrimack Valley disaster — it specified the need for oversight by experienced personnel, though not necessarily professionally licensed engineers.

The Massachusetts standard may be more rigorous and costly for utilities. So be it. Regulators should follow the advice of Anthony Morreale, president of the Massachusetts Society of Professional Engineers, who urged in a letter: "While there may be instances in which a licensed engineer is not needed, I urge caution in defining those instances too broadly." And should utilities seek waivers to these standards, those exceptions should be made public, as Attorney General Maura Healey's office has requested.

The breadth of disaster caused by an engineering failure on Sept. 13, 2018 — in addition to Rondon's death, 22 people were injured, 131 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed by explosions and fires, and residents of three communities were traumatized and subjected to a drawn-out recovery — is all the evidence anyone needs that oversight of the industry and its work should not be relaxed.