Fall River, MA – Residents have been complaining for more than a year about a pervasive gas smell in their neighborhood. The gas company has dug up area roads more than 10 times to inspect and, presumably, repair the natural gas lines. And now a house has been destroyed in a natural gas explosion that killed the homeowner and her dog. Still New England Gas Co. remains unresponsive.
The silence is deafening.
Residents and Somerset officials have been complaining about New England Gas reticence since the explosion at 93 New York Ave. on Feb. 19. Town Administrator Dennis Lutrell indicated last week that company officials have been unresponsive to questions from the town, save one statement from James F. Kern, the companys manager of gas distribution, a week after the explosion. Even the towns elected officials have been unable to get any answers, as New England Gas representatives failed to make a scheduled appearance at Wednesdays Board of Selectmen meeting.
New England Gas could not make it this week, said Selectmen Chairman William Meehan, who indicated they are expected at attend next weeks 6 p.m. meeting, which has been moved to the former Pottersville School to accommodate the expected large crowd. I understand they just dont have any additional information.
No matter. They have questions to answer. Residents attended Wednesdays hearing expecting to address company representatives directly and find out why their frequent reports of gas smells have not prompted the company to install new lines in the town. Instead, they walked away without any new information and without any consolation for their fears that their own homes could be the next 93 New York Ave.
In his statement last week, Kern tried to allay some of those fears while attempting to deflect blame from his company, indicating New England Gas found a pipeline that had seemingly been damaged by a third party sometime after its installation about 40 years ago. We will not at this time comment on who damaged the gas main, how it was damaged, or when that damage occurred, Kern said, though he made sure to point out sewer work had been done in the area after the pipes were installed in the 1970s.
The damaged pipe has been taken out of service, Kern said, and the company is planning more gas line inspections. NEGC will conduct an additional survey in the New York Avenue neighborhood within the next 60 days, he said.
Not good enough. Residents, some paralyzed by fear of a repeat blast, continue to complain almost daily about gas smells along New York Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue and Almy Road, which NEGC has been digging up for two years, Lutrell said. The neighbors are calling for a complete replacement of the gas lines, which would obviously come at a huge cost to the company.
But public safety trumps profit margin every time. New England Gas should immediately begin a comprehensive inspection of all gas lines, completely replacing any lines deemed even remotely at risk of failure. In the process, company executives must be made available to the public to answer all questions and assure residents directly that they are working to address all concerns. The best place to do so is at the Board of Selectmen meeting next Wednesday, an appointment company officials must keep this time.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion even after an external crisis management company issued the only public communication and tried to persuade journalists to attribute the information to NEGC officials The Herald News urged residents to reserve judgment and allow an investigation to proceed. But there was an expectation that company officials would at least fulfill their obligation to their customers and maintain a public face while the probe continues. It now appears New England Gas is unworthy of any benefit of the doubt and now must prove its commitment to residents safety.
The price of replacing aging infrastructure, while undoubtedly significant, is a necessary cost of doing business for all utility companies. Nothing lasts forever; there is little doubt utility companies must modernize their systems at some point. There are strong indications the time to do so in Somerset is now.