BOSTON — Gas explosions rocked houses in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, three towns along the Merrimack River near Boston Sept. 13, killing one person and injuring dozens. Seventy homes exploded or caught fire from leaks caused by overpressurized gas lines owned and operated by Columbia Gas Company.
“It just went up, it sounded like we were being bombed,” Kimberly Nicollosi, who was a block away from one house that exploded in North Andover, told the Boston Herald.
Gas and electric service was shut off to 18,000 people in the area and many were forced to evacuate. “If you smell gas, you gotta get out of your home,” Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera told the media, leaving residents to figure out for themselves what to do.
The 1,200 members of the United Steelworkers union locked out by National Grid were rebuffed when they offered to volunteer to help.
People were allowed to return to their homes three days later when electric service was restored. Some 8,500 metered customers remained without gas service, and will be for weeks to come.
USW presidents Joe Kirylo and John Buonopane, of locals 12003 and 12012, released a statement solidarizing with those affected by the gas explosions and fires. “[We] would like to immediately offer our assistance to help in this very serious, life-threatening situation. Our 1,200 veteran natural gas workers are ready now to offer our experience and technical expertise during this crisis and to help safely restore service.”
Columbia Gas is a subsidiary of NiSource, based in Indiana. The nonunion outfit, which had been seeking a rate increase, has a history of fines for safety violations, tax problems and other issues. In 2017 the bosses had to cough up $252,000 for 50 violations of Massachusetts Dig Safe program, which is supposed to ensure that workers near gas, water and electric lines can work safely.
The Steelworkers have been locked out by National Grid since June 25, when their contract expired. The workers refused to accept the bosses’ concession demands that would raise workers’ health care costs, force new workers to take a 401(k)-style retirement package instead of the pension plan that current workers have, and expand use of nonunion contract workers. They’ve been picketing company facilities since. The company supplies schools and businesses in 85 communities.
The locked-out National Grid workers have been volunteering in Lawrence, Buonopane told the media, handing out water and setting up cots. But, he said, they are frustrated they can’t use their expertise to help with the recovery.
“With our help service would be returned to people in weeks, not months,” Paul Dempsey, a locked-out worker, told the Militant as he walked the National Grid picket line in Braintree Sept. 22.