National Guardsmen delivering hotplates, teams of electricians, assessors, translators and plumbers, and 24,000 space heaters will arrive in the Merrimack Valley in coming days to support residents during a pipeline repair and gas restoration effort that officials said will be complete by Nov. 19.
Gov. Charlie Baker, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera and other officials detailed the plans Friday morning in Lawrence, where Baker introduced retired Navy Capt. Joe Albanese as the outside contractor that Columbia Gas brought on as chief recovery officer. Albanese, founder and CEO of the construction management firm Commodore Builders, has 25 years of military service with naval construction forces, according to the utility.
Albanese said 20 crews are in the area beginning the work to restore gas service to 8,600 customers after last Thursday’s series of fires and explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. By Oct. 8, 195 crews will be on scene, he said.
“Within two weeks, meters will begin to be energized and associated buildings will be energized with the gas service they need,” he said.
Baker said about 2,000 gas meters can be brought back to full service in the next few weeks, with one project already underway in Lawrence.
The first venting of the natural gas system, a process through which any residual gas is removed from the lines prior to the start of work, was scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. at two Lawrence locations: near the intersection of Amherst and Beacon streets, and at 209 South Broadway.
The targeted Nov. 19 restoration date gives the crews 60 days to execute a plan that Joe Hamrock, the head of Columbia’s parent company NiSource, called “a blueprint of hope for this whole area.”
Baker described the effort as a “massive undertaking” and said the associated relief measures will take “hundreds and probably thousands of people.”
“Everyone’s top priority is safety,” he said.
Distribution of hotplates and electric cooking appliances, so residents can still cook while their gas service remains suspended, will begin Saturday, Baker said. The hotplates — nearly 7,000 in total, according to Columbia Gas — will be made available for pickup in Andover and North Andover, and the National Guard will deliver them door-to-door in Lawrence.
Rivera advised residents that the guardsmen will be “in our neighborhoods, in uniforms, without weapons” during the mitigation efforts, and that traffic will “look a lot different” as the work on 48 miles of gas pipe proceeds. The mayor said the crews will use a “creative recovery process” and instead of working linearly down the pipe, will look for places that can “get more people up sooner and in bigger chunks.”
Baker, who has met with affected business in Andover and North Andover, will hold a similar meeting in Lawrence Monday, Rivera said.
“We know that if we can get businesses up, that also normalizes people’s lives,” Rivera said.
Also Monday, teams will start the process of installing space heaters in homes where that has been deemed safe, Baker said. He said additional options are being developed for places where space heaters are not an option.
Plumbers, electricians, guardsmen, translators and assessors on Wednesday will begin inspecting homes and businesses to determine what repairs are necessary to make them safe for eventual gas restoration, Baker said.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was scheduled to visit Lawrence Friday afternoon, where she planned to meet with Rivera and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito before visiting affected residents at a Lawrence Housing Authority cookout.
Warren and Sen. Ed Markey earlier Friday wrote to Columbia Gas, asking for details about its systems, safety measures, operating procedures and contractors.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the explosions. The senators in their letter said the investigation is focusing on a “pressure increase that may be linked to pressure sensors that were on a gas line taken out of service,” which would have happened at the same time as upgrades that were taking place in the area.
Feeney Brothers Utility Services on Friday afternoon issued a statement saying one of their crews had been working “on a low-pressure to low-pressure gas main tie-in” at the intersection of South Union and Salem streets in South Lawrence on Sept. 13, the day the fires broke out. The four crew members have been interviewed by the National Transportation Safety Board.
“All of Feeney’s work was done with Columbia Gas’s oversight and according to written procedures provided to its crew by Columbia Gas and directly overseen by a union inspector employed by Columbia Gas,” the statement said. “Feeney’s crew and Columbia Gas’s inspector were interviewed by Columbia Gas managers in the early hours of Friday morning after which Columbia Gas reported that our crew was solid and had done nothing wrong. This was subsequently confirmed by other Columbia Gas representatives who indicated that Feeney followed the Columbia Gas procedures correctly and as directed.”