Struggle Continues Months After Massachusetts Gas Blasts

By PHILIP MARCELO | December 20, 2018

Some Massachusetts homeowners and small businesses are still struggling to return to normalcy after September’s dramatic gas pipeline explosions, even as the utility responsible says the vast majority of customers have heat and hot water again.

Columbia Gas said this week that only about 150 customers who opted to do required repairs themselves are still waiting for service to be restored, calling its work in the Merrimack Valley “substantially complete.” It had originally promised to reach the milestone before Thanksgiving.

But that doesn’t factor in about 30 other families still dealing with extensive fire or explosion damage that will take months more to repair.

Some small business owners in the region near the New Hampshire state line also say they’re still reeling because business hasn’t picked back up. They say many residents either aren’t spending or haven’t returned to the neighborhood full time.

And some property owners complain repairs done by the company and its contractors have only led to more problems.

“Our old neighbors are feeling relief, and we’re happy for them,” said Ivan Soto, a police officer in Lawrence whose home was one of 131 structures seriously damaged or destroyed in the disaster. “It feels good to know the community is starting to recover. But it’s a little different for us. We’re not there yet.”

Most affected homes and businesses didn’t see extensive damage, but nearly all needed hot water heaters, boilers, stoves or other natural gas appliances repaired or replaced.

Over-pressurization during a routine pipeline replacement project triggered the series of natural gas explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover on Sept. 13. One person died and more than two dozen were injured.

Soto’s modest ranch home burned to the ground while he was on duty. The 36-year-old Lawrence resident rushed home to make sure his family was safe before returning to duty to help evacuate the city.

Since then, the family of four has been staying in an apartment paid for by their insurance while their home is rebuilt. They hope to move in by next spring.

Soto said he parks his cruiser at their property from time to time and watches the new house rise. The rubble has already been cleared, and a new foundation was recently poured.

“It’s nice to see the progress,” Soto said. “We’re grateful to have a roof over head, but it isn’t home. Home is on Jefferson Street.”

A few blocks over, Luis Heredia has all but given up after asking Columbia Gas for weeks to replace the boiler its contractors installed in late October.

He said the house’s basement filled up with thick black smoke on two occasions, prompting visits from both firefighters and Columbia Gas contractors. Each time, he said, workers assured him the problems had been resolved.

But the 55-year-old said the house still isn’t heating properly. The upstairs bedrooms where his three young children sleep are chilly unless he cranks the thermostat past 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius), Heredia said. Rather than run up their heating bill, the family makes do with space heaters.

“We never had problems before with our old boiler,” Heredia said in Spanish. “The house isn’t the same.”

Columbia Gas declined to comment on Heredia’s issue but said it will continue to provide free repairs to any equipment installed through May 2020.

Spokesman Dean Lieberman said the company has received a “small amount” of complaints on repaired or replaced equipment but declined to elaborate.

Fire officials said a North Andover family was exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide last week after workers replaced a valve on the home’s boiler, and a Lawrence woman said she suffered first-degree burns on her hands and face after flames suddenly shot up from her new stove.

Lieberman said the “configuration of the chimney and some customer-made modifications” limited ventilation and contributed to the carbon monoxide incident. He said the stove incident was likely caused by a grease fire.

“We have no reason to believe there is a systemic problem with the repairs Columbia Gas contractors made or that there is a broader threat in other homes,” he said in an email.

A couple of miles (kilometers) from Heredia’s home, Junior Hernandez sat at the cash register of his corner store in Lawrence one recent afternoon and wondered if business was ever going to pick up.

Three customers trickled into Hernandez Market during a time of the day when the storeowner said he typically sees a rush of students seeking after-school snacks, including his homemade empanadas.

Hernandez, who opened the market nine years ago, said he’s gone from earning $500 to $1,000 a day to less than $200.

“Sometimes it feels like the whole neighborhood is gone,” he said. “Nobody is buying anything.”

Columbia Gas has offered him $6,200 in compensation, but Hernandez said that’s not nearly enough. He said it would cost nearly $5,500 just to replace a deli counter fridge damaged when electricity was restored to the building.

Hernandez has virtually emptied his savings account to keep the market afloat, but he’s reluctant to tap into the small business loan fund created after the disaster. He’s concerned he might not be able to pay the money back if business doesn’t rebound.

“It’s a gamble,” Hernandez said. “And at this stage, I can’t take the gamble.”

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