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Legislator calls for new laws on gas leaks

Rep. Lori Ehrlich said gas workers and firefighters back her bills addressing the risks of thousands of known leaks. Rep. Lori Ehrlich said gas workers and firefighters back her bills addressing the risks of thousands of known leaks.
By Michael Norton
State House News Service / June 10, 2011

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Citing increased reports of natural gas explosions in the United States and a “severe problem’’ in Massachusetts, state Representative Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat, is calling for new laws addressing the risks posed by thousands of known gas leaks around the state.

A gas utility industry official described her proposals as costly and redundant.

Testifying before the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy on Wednesday, Ehrlich called for laws establishing a leak classification system and requiring leak repairs on prescribed timelines; mandating the monitoring of cast-iron mains susceptible to freeze-and-thaw damage in the winter; and creating a publicly accessible database of leak information.

Ehrlich said that firefighters and gas workers backed her bills and that 40 House and Senate lawmakers from both parties have signed on as supporters.

“They have heard from their constituents who smell these leaks and are afraid because they are not repaired,’’ she said. “They’ve heard from their police and fire departments who, as first responders, continue to get calls about natural gas leaks.’’

The Northeast Gas Association, which represents major gas utilities like NStar and National Grid, testified against the leak classification and public database proposals, describing them as unnecessary, costly to ratepayers, and redundant with existing requirements.

Tom Kiley, the association’s president and chief executive, said in written testimony that street-opening moratoriums in many communities would make it difficult to meet a proposed requirement that certain leaks be repaired within three years.

Gas companies, which serve 1.5 million customers a day in Massachusetts and account for nearly half the power-generation and home-heating markets, monitor gas odor levels using an odorant called mercaptan that is added to the distribution system at a rate seven times higher than federal standards, Kiley said. That process makes it more likely that the public will notice the presence of gas and report it.

“We want the calls from customers and the public when they detect a gas odor,’’ Kiley said. “We strive to answer those calls in as timely and responsible a manner as possible, and our utilities are accountable to the [Department of Public Utilities] in every way on this matter.’’

State Senator Benjamin Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat and the committee cochairman, said after the hearing that the public safety implications of leaks were “very compelling,’’ as well as statements about wasted natural gas. Downing also said it was troubling that different utilities have different leak classification and management systems.

“There’s certainly some merit to trying to reform that system to better measure those and then figure out why the leaks aren’t being addressed,’’ Downing said.

Addressing the leak problem would prevent avoidable deaths, reduce the amount of gas that escapes into the environment, and create jobs in the leak-repair industry, Ehrlich said.

She added that she had met last month in Washington with US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Senators John F. Kerry and Scott Brown, and federal regulators who said that deadly gas-related explosions can be prevented.