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Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

Since the prior thread has been closed, I thought some might be interested to learn what the outcome was for the gas company involved in the disaster. Record 53 million dollar fine and the company, Columbia Gas, is to be sold. For some reason, residents just don’t feel safe leaving Columbia Gas in business in their neighborhoods, lol.


RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

Kestral42, thanks very much for posting this news.

For the benefit of those outside the US, as the Sentinel has blocked foreign IP addresses, I will reprint it here. Hopefully all appropriate credit due The Sentinal for their article will suffice.

"BOSTON (AP) — A utility company will pay the largest criminal fine ever imposed for breaking a federal pipeline safety law — $53 million — and plead guilty to causing a series of natural gas explosions in Massachusetts that killed one person and damaged dozens of homes, federal officials said Wednesday.

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has agreed to plead guilty to violating the Pipeline Safety Act and pay the fine to resolve a federal investigation into the explosions that rocked three communities in the Merrimack Valley, north of Boston, in September 2018.

"Today’s settlement is a sobering reminder that if you decide to put profits before public safety, you will pay the consequences," FBI Agent Joseph Bonavolonta said.

The company said in an emailed statement that it takes full responsibility for the disaster.

“Today’s resolution with the U.S. Attorney’s Office is an important part of addressing the impact," the company wrote. “Our focus remains on enhancing safety, regaining the trust of our customers and ensuring that quality service is delivered.”

The company's parent, Merrillville, Indiana-based NiSource Inc., has also agreed to try to sell the company and cease any gas pipeline and distribution activities in Massachusetts, according to court documents. Any profit from the sale of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts will be handed over to the federal government.

"We knew that one of the things those communities wanted was for Columbia Gas to simply go away," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling told reporters. “The tragedy was to such an extent that it would be extremely difficult for the populations in those towns to trust this company going forward, so that was one of our priorities when we struck this deal,” he said.

The explosions and fires outraged the communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, where thousands of homes and businesses went without gas service for weeks, and months in some cases, during the winter. Residents and public officials lashed out at the company for not adequately responding and called for officials to be held accountable.

Leonel Rondon, 18, died when a chimney collapsed on his vehicle in the driveway of a friend’s home — hours after he had gotten his driver's license. About two dozen others were injured, and dozens of buildings were damaged or destroyed.

A series of class action lawsuits stemming from the explosions has settled for $143 million. The settlement awaits final approval from a judge.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera praised the plea deal, saying it will be a “great day” when Columbia Gas no longer exists.

“This agreement will bring some much needed solace to those affected,” he told reporters.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the explosions on overpressurized gas lines, saying the company failed to account for critical pressure sensors as workers replaced century-old cast-iron pipes in Lawrence. That omission caused high-pressure gas to flood the neighborhood’s distribution system at excessive levels.

Lelling said federal investigators found that Columbia Gas violated minimum safety standards for starting up and shutting down gas lines through a “pattern of flagrant indifference.”

An internal company notice circulated in 2015 showed that the company knew that failing to properly account for control lines in construction projects could cause fires and explosions, officials said. Yet Columbia Gas cut corners to increase its bottom line, officials said.

The company didn't keep reliable records of control lines because it was too expensive, hired inexperienced and untrained workers, and didn't communicate with the city of Lawrence about construction projects, Bonavolonta said. Columbia Gas couldn't even give NTSB investigators an accurate picture of who its customers were in the immediate wake of the explosions, he said.

"This disaster was caused by a whole management failure at Columbia Gas," Lelling said.

Until Columbia Gas is sold, an independent monitor will ensure that the company is following state and federal laws, Lelling said.

The disaster prompted federal officials to call in September for every state to require that all natural gas infrastructure projects be reviewed and approved by a licensed professional engineer. The NTSB also recommended that natural gas utilities be required to install additional safeguards on low pressure systems like the one involved in the explosions.

Columbia Gas is scheduled to plead guilty on March 9."
Note that the Feds, as stated above, will get any profits from the sale!!!

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

As usual, it appears there is no culpability within the govt for their approval of such an asinine system. Sad.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

It is unbelievable to me that a licensed PE is not required. By the company, by state and/or federal rules, by insurance companies, etc. Regulation hurts business profits so it is lobbied against, with no opposing views allowed or listened to. Short term profits rule. There is no mechanism to easily claw back profits bonuses, incentives, etc paid to the creeps that enabled this.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update


It is unbelievable to me that a licensed PE is not required.

Given that this happened in a major urban area, I would wager that the regulators who approved the construction of this system were licensed, yet they still missed the lack of PRDs at the customer connection. To me this isn't a matter of licensing, its a matter of a systemic lack of common sense and failure to follow industry norms.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

I've never understood the utility exception to the PE requirement. Plant work I understand because it's relatively self contained to their own property. Public utilities are the complete opposite

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

A large well run utility shouldn't be a problem. The PE's at our regional gas & electric company were actually major players in the local board even though licensing was not required. They helped set the pace for the profession. The company was generous with time for them too. Within the company many non PE's were working on their own and equal to the staff PE's, but the supervision chain knew how much to trust the non PE's (and how much to trust the PE's too) so that trust made an informal licensing scheme. An odd thing was that in each design section the go-to fellow for long experience, practical wisdom and fresh ways to look at things was usually the senior fellow under the section supervisor (PE), a non PE who had come up through the ranks. This goes back to a boom era when it was hard enough to find good people let alone ones with a degree to verify it.

Back to our case at hand I agree that the system failed but I think it was the quality of the company management rather than a lack of PE oversight. Even experienced non PE's could have foreseen the flaws here. This one looks like a "new management" design and the naysaying experienced people were treated dismissively. Even PE's with wisdom who were not with the "smart" new business ways could have been sidestepped here.

Just my 2 cents, Bill

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

"A large well run utility shouldn't be a problem." If this was still 30-40 years ago, I would tend to agree with you.

It didn't used to be a problem. I am afraid that it is today. The events have proven so. Systems are OLDER. Systems are LARGER, covering more area. Systems are STRAINED trying to meet new demands. Population density is higher. Pressures are often HIGHER, at least upstream. Control systems are more COMPLEX. Perhaps even environmental conditions have become more extreme. In many companies technology has been allowed to replace human knowledge, rather than assist it. In the rush to push all those new buttons, which anybody can do, it has been easy for them to undervalue the experience of those that knew where those buttons and wires went. When you had to go turn a valve by hand and be cranking for 30 minutes, you'd look around and you'd tend to notice if something looked rusty, had a bullet impact, or gone otherwise amiss, or just plain gone missing. Gas and oil companies do little of their own engineering today. They let go of their experienced (i.e. expensive, senior, departments billable to overhead) people a very, long, long time ago. Everybody knows that nobody really likes those workers that always bring in a new problem from the field that they just happened to notice that could use a fix-up. Nobody's got time for that with all those work orders in the inbox. The reduction of experienced staff started during the low prices of the 80's and it hasn't ever gotten much better since. Heck, there used to be engineers on their boards of directors; can you believe? The engineering contract companies that they use today to get their work done, while delegating as much responsibility as possible, seldom have experience in the specific sector, as in many cases these engineering companies must cater to wider, more general markets. You can find some engineering.coms that do large scale pipelines, but there are not so many (yet?) that specialize in doing small scale works, as is typical of much of distribution company works and gas gathering system hook-ups, or even small scale tie-in works, or city gate modifications, being done for larger interstate gas transmission companies. I might also venture to say that those supposed well-run, large companies today are precisely those same ones that do tend to have the worst "incidents". Columbia Gas-NiSource is not a small company at all. Neither is Exxon, TransCanada, SoCal, Texas Eastern, Enbridge and Macondo's BP. It is seemingly harder and harder to name those large, well-run, utility companies every day that goes by. Which large, well-run gsa distribution company can you trust and do you live in their service area?

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

Quote (Bill West)

Even PE's with wisdom who were not with the "smart" new business ways could have been sidestepped here.

One aspect of having PEs as employees is that under certain state regulations, one of the officers of the company will also be a PE. It doesn't really make sense to me how so many industries and public entities can bypass these practices. Entities responsible for gas/power/oil distribution, highway design, flood control structures, aircraft/auto manufacturing, and many other systems affecting public safety, don't have to hire PEs, or have any PEs (or engineers) in the management of the company, or have any state level oversight of non-PE engineering practice. Is it any wonder that policy and infrastructure decisions get made without any engineering input?

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

I've worked in automotive my entire career and for the most part management has actively discouraged engineers from getting their PE. They considered it a liability to have PE's on staff. If there was a problem the PE's could be sued along with the company. That didn't mean the engineering didn't have strong input into decisions.


The Help for this program was created in Windows Help format, which depends on a feature that isn't included in this version of Windows.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update


Entities responsible for gas/power/oil distribution, highway design, flood control structures, aircraft/auto manufacturing, and many other systems affecting public safety, don't have to hire PEs, or have any PEs (or engineers) in the management of the company, or have any state level oversight of non-PE engineering practice. Is it any wonder that policy and infrastructure decisions get made without any engineering input?

In what world is this true? Cite specific examples please so we know what and who to report.

I've worked oil & gas infrastructure along with aerospace and automotive design, those three are arguably the most heavily regulated industries that exist. In all three, having PEs on staff is common and licensure rewarded, you won't find many in a legal or regulatory-facing role that aren't licensed. I've also been an elected official approving highway, drainage, and dam projects, and while being less regulated those are all under the direct supervision/review of local and state regulators required to hold PE licenses. Even privately owned infrastructure (quite a few dams) requires a govt-employed PE's approval if it might impact the public before any significant modifications were made and their inspections are a regularity.

Whether or not an engineer has a PE is an independent variable not relevant to this situation nor public safety, tho I'd wager that one or more PEs were directly responsible for this catastrophe. Directly relevant OTOH are the standard DFMEAs and risk mitigation plans which should have allowed even an unlicensed junior engineer to catch the lack of PRDs at the customer connections. Bottom line - people are flawed, hence the first premise of ethical engineering being peer review.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

Columbia Gas for one.

CWB1, Why are you so sure? Your wager that one or more PEs were directly responsible for this catastrophe is contradicted by NTSB's investigation, accident report and subsequent recommendations. As you note, the problem is unlicensed engineers, that have no requirement under any law that holds them to any ethical standards, practice or procedure. They don't have to even understand the theory about what that might be. There is no legal recourse that can be taken against unprofessional engineers, other than a relatively minor practicing without a license thing. They have 0 legal responsibility. And BTW how and where exactly were your "Directly relevant OTOH are the standard DFMEAs and risk mitigation plans" that day, which should have kicked in to save the victims from the damages that were done? This is not about independent variables, it is about establishing standard requirements and minimum expected levels of public protection. When that is your objective, you will not chose to specify unprofessional individuals. Let us know when you ask your unlicensed, junior physician do your brain surgury. We will make sure that him/her has been given a copy of all directly relevant OTOH are the standard DFMEAs and risk mitigation plans.

Some oil and gas companies have PE's aboard, however a PE's seal is seldom seen on anything more than zoning permit applications, such as what might be required to build a compressor station, when such is located within an incorporated city's boundary. I have only worked at one oil and gas company, Transco Gas Pipeline, since purchased by Williams Companies, that encouraged PE registration and that was many many years ago. Not sure if they still have the same policy today. In any case, until recent developments, a PE's seal was not required on ANY high pressure natural gas, crude oil, petroleum product, liquid ammonia, and other hazardous gas and liquid pipelines that are criss-crossing almost the entire country in both private and public right-of-ways. Generally speaking, if public money is not directly involved with a public project, you don't need a PE seal for anything more than cracking pecans.

Read the state by state summary of EXEMPTIONS

P.S. American doctors know the secret of prestige, social reputation and wealth generation in their profession as a whole is to keep it elite and highly valued. As a whole, it has served them well. In that light, I am constantly surprised by the number of engineers that apparently seem to have contradictory ideas towards professional registration. They would seem to favor being unprofessionally unregistered. All I can say to that is its difficult to fly with the eagles, when you're dragged down by the turkeys.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

The real secret for US doctors is the AMA keeps a clamp on the number of teaching hospitals, which sets a firm limit to the number of doctors that can enter the industry each year. However, prestige, reputation, and wealth generation have all taken a beating as more corporations take over medicine and siphon significant amounts of trust and cash out of the system. Add on explosive growth in education costs and it's becoming a less effective choice of wealth accumulation.

DFMEA only works with people with enough experience in that exact area to expose outcomes. Otherwise it become an infinite branch problem if there's no one who knows when to prune.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

ax1e, the root cause of this disaster was incompetence, nothing more and nothing less. The common criticism of the PE exam is that its a broad, general knowledge exam lacking depth. IOW, per the usual joke and arguments against our current licensing system, it does nothing to ensure competence (in this case - spec'ing PRDs) and is much like a MBA in an engineering office - semi-useless and therefore irrelevant to this conversation. Furthermore, your assertion that non-PEs cannot be held legally accountable for their actions is simply wrong. Regardless if they are in someone's employ or working for themselves, they face the possibility of being personally sued or incarcerated just the same as a PE.

Getting back to this particular disaster, the NTSB report says nothing of the municipal approval/reapproval process for this system, its inspections, nor the govt PEs ultimately responsible for these processes. It lays blame directly on Columbia for incompetence, completely ignoring the fact that this system should have several layers of recurring govt oversight.


The real secret for US doctors is the AMA keeps a clamp on the number of teaching hospitals

Agreed. A friend that owns a specialty veterinary practice often points out the massive income disparity between people docs and animal docs' incomes due to the number of schools available to teach the two sciences.

I somewhat disagree with you on DFMEAs as they should be structured to be basically idiot-proof, but if the company is tiny and the staff badly inexperienced I suppose anything is possible. I would hope however that standard parts and systems being reviewed would have a common list of standard failure modes and suggested list of possible risk mitigations. In the past I've found leading DFMEAs to be a great way for junior engineers not only to meet staff but also to learn the basics of how specific products and systems function and fail.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

To me, a PE license is more than a stupid useless piece of paper. It implies at least a basic understanding of engineering principles, an agreement that science is valuable, a willingness approach a problem in a logical way and at least some experience under another PE. But well beyond that, is the psychological effect. I have found that PEs carry themselves differently and act differently. A similar effect is noticed when a normal person puts on a suit and tie to an office meeting or other event. Same for doctors in white lab coats.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

To get a PE license (at least in my state) you must pass a fundamentals of engineering test, gain a number of years of experience, an engineering degree. Then you get to convince several PE's to submit letters to the state board that you are sufficiently competent and have character consistent with what is expected of practicing PE's that you should be permitted to take the PE test. Then you get to sit for the "Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam"

PE's gain the authority to "seal" work where either the government or a customer requires it. Sealing work is viewed as stating that the work was performed under your charge, and that it is to be viewed by others as your work.
PE's in at least some states gain the legal responsibility to protect the public.

You can check your state board of engineering for details.

I am a PE

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

I have heard both sides of the “PE for everything” argument. As a PE myself, I am obviously a bit biased.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

Given that we need to provide an immediate increased level of competence and assurance in the design and repair of these systems, invoking the PE infrastructure to do so would appear to be the best and quickest way to reach that objective. Certainly that is preferable to say, designating some or other code inspector type that will never hope to understand that codes at best can only prescribe MINIMUM safety requirements for typical situations, or those junior engineers that see one formula for hoop stress and think they have enough wall thickness for something other than straight, unburied, totally unrestrained pipe, floating in constantly 59°F, noncorrosive ether at constant internal pressure. Those kind that show up here on ET all the time, you know them, the ones that can't be bothered to ever read a code themselves, that at best can only find time to search a code for a few key words, then not reading more than the one paragraph they found, missing each and every, paragraph b and by reference requirement listed, then ask us to fill in all their remaining skull holes.

Seriously, I know the PE system isn't ideal, you're still going to get PEs that are light on specific areas of experience and all, but what other system can we tap into that could get us anything close to functional.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

I noted above that the official process for gaining a PE is sufficiently rigorous to weed out most of the potential candidates that should not do engineering without supervision.
Building engineering compliance takes a lifetime, and does not one to be a PE.
From a government standpoint having a PE in charge is useful as the engineer has clear legal responsibility for his stamped work. The legal responsibility for supervising stamped work is why engineers that stamp work are named in their firms errors and omissions insurance.

Liability for non PE's still exists, bit is a bit harder to convict in a criminal court.

The score

The reason why the guilty plea to the enormous settlement is probably to shield upper management from personal liability, the government probably agreed due to the difficulty of convicting non engineers in this sort of a suit.
A previous example of the impact of an engineering disaster can be seen in the January 15, 1919, Boston Molasses Flood https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Molasses_Flood "Many laws and regulations governing construction were changed as a direct result of the disaster, including requirements for oversight by a licensed architect and civil engineer."

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

The trouble with requiring a PE is that the license does nothing to guarantee experience in niche areas such as gas distribution systems. One could argue that a PE is actually counterproductive as discussed here many times, many PEs believe it is their right on the basis of their PE to perform work with which they have zero experience and also complete work with no peer review. Having seen a small city in which I lived previously seriously consider employing a 27-year old PE as city engineer with final oversight on everything from dams to road construction to gas infrastructure, that mentality is a timebomb waiting to happen. I suspect that is why there has been no mention of culpability among the local licensed officialdom with ultimate engineering oversight - they likely had no experience and are thus unqualified for the position they're in.

If the goal is to hire competence, the only standard worth considering is past success meeting strict regulations and peer review. The fact that one or both was omitted in a heavily populated area is worrisome.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

I have had experience with a couple of those young PEs.
These were installations done well and to code, but failed because the PE didn't understand the code and had zero field experience.
Both times an old "up through the ranks" inspector was able to sort it out and save the PE the embarrassment of losing an appealed ruling.

"Why not the best?"
Jimmy Carter

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

Well, that certainly is possible. The client would have done well to hire a PE with experience in their field. That is the usual procedure that was always in force whenever our clients selected our company to do such work. We were always selected from proposals made by a group of several companies with experience in the type of project of interest which included a rigorous iterview involving several in office and at site meetigs. Usually a (non-bid) process that was designed solely to select the engineering compamy based on the best documented experiemce in the particular type of installations of interest. After all, you don't go to a proctologist for brain surgury, right. Well unless of course you've got your head stuck in the wrong place.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

I built a few monuments myself - before I became a PE. It is all part of learning how to be an engineer. Working under an experienced engineer helped considerably. It also helped that I apprenticed in a machine shop before I finished my schooling.


RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

School: All variables are given. They never change. You just have to solve the equations.
Work: No variables are given. All are subject to change. You just know what equations you have to solve.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

Good point at work sometimes the equations are also unknown (or are too complex to be useful) and usable equations need to be figured out (or the actual expert found that has solved a similar problem).

When one of these complex jobs is finished and all of the task requirements are met it can be really satisfying.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

School is equations. Real world is empirical.

I presented a paper at a conference 11+ years ago where I described a process where I solved a set of equations by trial and error. One equation and hundreds, if not thousands, of unknowns (zero sequence impedance of multiple lines with many sections and lots of variable conditions). I solved it by assuming a single value over the whole distance for a couple of necessary values and comparing those against an actual event, iterating until the results were reasonable. A couple of different reactions.

One was from my advisor (working on my Masters at the time) who brought a group of students to the conference and he said that the students were all aghast at the empirical approach. The other was the founder of a major supplier who declared that "this is a significant paper" in the field. Experience since then show that the empirical approach rules the roost.

All of that isn't to say that there aren't a whole lot of equations that are useful day in and day out, but all of those equations start out assuming a set of ideal conditions. If the ideal condition are a good match to reality then the standard equations are used and found useful. But when the ideal conditions don't do a good job of describing the actual conditions the solution becomes more and more empirical. Knowing which is which is when/where the grey hairs are earned.

RE: Gas Main Explosion in Massachusetts- Update

Which is why neural networks are making progress, essentially emulating that approach. Show them enough of the mash available and the right results and they start figuring out how to paint the big picture.

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