Columbia Gas and National Grid failed us; now what?

Our infrastructure is crumbling, and nothing seems to be changing


(Flickr Creative Commons: Amira Elwakil)

By James Mazarakis, Assistant Op/Ed Editor

Imagine losing your home to something out of your control. Now imagine that it wasn’t a force of nature like a hurricane or flood that decimates your neighborhood— it was a human or system error.

This is the reality faced by residents in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, Massachusetts, after the pressure in a series of natural gas pipes spiked and exploded, displacing 80 families and killing one young man in the fallout. Beyond the numbers, it is astonishing to see how broad the area where the explosions and gas leaks wreaked havoc was. The city of 80,000 people “looked like Armageddon,” according to the Andover fire chief.

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, now under fire by Massachusetts Senators to explain its apparent inaction, is also responsible for the natural gas in Springfield, Northampton and the greater Brockton area.

This tragedy unfolds while other aspects of our infrastructure are questioned. In southeast America, post-Hurricane Florence recovery remains to be fully evaluated. Hurricane Maria is also on the news as its death toll is estimated to be close to 3,000. Last year, the Oroville Dam in California was feared to be on the brink of failure. Parts of Flint, Michigan still have poisoned water, by the way. The list goes on. None of this is normal. For all this talk by our president about fixing our crumbling infrastructure, it sure feels like our nation’s physical form is continuing to crumble.

We can’t blame the president for all of our problems, though – they’re systematic. Even in Massachusetts, an awkward combination of privatization and regulation creates a public works culture irresponsible and warped by self-interest.

And it’s not just Columbia Gas. National Grid, a competing utilities facility, has agitated cities and towns in Massachusetts for preventing over 1,200 union workers from doing their jobs. This so-called “lockout” came at the end of months-long negotiations with the union; on June 25, the company snapped and revoked the union members’ access to National Grid facilities. Since then, a service area of 700,000 gas customers has been sparsely managed by replacement workers.

The company insists these temporary workers have worked “without incident.” So far. But between the risk of barely-trained workers managing the lifeblood of our cities and an epidemic of eager-to-work, experienced citizens trying to make ends meet on unemployment with their jobs in limbo, it appears to be nothing more than greed and injustice.

Mayors of cities and towns in National Grid’s purview are enraged at this blatant risk to public safety but cannot do more than make strong proclamations or protest further by denying National Grid new contracts. Either way, the safety of these municipalities is at the mercy of the utility company’s union-busting motives.

Why are the providers of essential services like gas, water and electricity capable of putting their righteousness over the needs of our communities? Why is oversight not the utmost priority in our dealings with an aged infrastructure?

Governor Charlie Baker, who has been rightly penalizing the gas company from the start, stated that that the costs of rebuilding would be “paid for by Columbia.” A firm position like this surprises me coming from someone who refused to take a stance on the 2016 election, but it’s a welcome change. With one young man dead, I would hope Columbia (if truly responsible, as it seems) is held accountable for the damage and loss of life and property.

It’s not as simple as “making them pay,” though: It’s important to recognize that utility systems straddle an awkward line between monopolies and regulated entities, so it’s fairly common for such penalties to eventually hit the people devastated in the first place. Both Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey appear to be resisting shifting the burden to ratepayers, but it’s hard to say what will happen over the coming years.

Either way, this should be a priority as we look ahead to a gubernatorial election. Is it right for us to fight over crumbs and debate how much the company is allowed to charge the ratepayers? Perhaps we need a governor with a backbone to demand the Trump administration follows through with a plan to repair our country’s infrastructure and fund public works to the necessary degree. I don’t expect nor trust the president to solve any of these problems, but Congress might — especially under new leadership.

Addressing the transmission of our basic needs is becoming a matter of life and livelihood. Time and time again, it is the most vulnerable among us who suffer from our crumbling infrastructure. Let’s take what happened in the Lawrence area for what it is: a tragedy, an injustice and a call to action.

James Mazarakis is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]