What caused those gas explosions in Massachusetts? No one seems to know

When I wrote about this story Thursday afternoon, at least 70 homes had exploded and/or caught fire in the area of Lawrence, Massachusetts and authorities were scrambling to put out the fires and also to evacuate the area. It seemed obvious that there was some kind of problem with the gas lines but no one was too clear about what had started it. All anyone could point to was a notice posted on the gas company’s website Thursday morning which said they were going to be doing some work in the neighborhood.

Today, the Associated Press reports the cause of the incident is still an open question:

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to help investigate the disaster in a state where some of the aging gas pipeline system dates to the 1860s…

Gov. Charlie Baker said state and local authorities were investigating but it could take days or weeks before they turn up answers, acknowledging the “massive inconvenience” for those displaced by the explosions. He said hundreds of gas technicians were going house-to-house to ensure each was safe, and declared a state of emergency for the affected area so the state could take over recovery efforts.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency blamed the fires on gas lines that had become over-pressurized but said investigators were still examining what happened.

Clearly, whatever went wrong here involved Columbia Gas. Last night, Rep. Seth Moulton tweeted that he’d tried multiple times to contact the company’s president to no avail:

To be fair, the gas company president probably had his hands full last night trying to deal with the problem. There were reports that the company was trying to depressurize its lines in the area. But given the severity of this incident, you would expect that by today some word of explanation would be forthcoming. The company set up a web page to respond to the disaster but it says nothing about the cause:

What happened in the Merrimack Valley yesterday was a tragic incident. We are saddened to learn of the death of a young man as a result of these events. Our thoughts and continued support are with those who have been injured and affected. We are focused on providing as much support as possible to our customers, residents and communities. We are grateful for the community’s patience, as well as the tremendous support we have received from our first responder and law enforcement partners.

A bit later the statement says “We are working with the appropriate authorities to investigate this incident.” And that’s it. In situations like this, authorities always want to be sure they get it right, and that’s admirable, but it can’t be used as an excuse to say nothing at all.

If authorities don’t know what caused this yet, then it seems likely the area won’t have gas service again until the cause is determined and the problem is corrected. If that process could take several weeks, residents with gas stoves and water heaters should be told that as soon as possible so they can begin making arrangements to deal with it.

On the other hand, if the company and fire officials do have a good idea of what happened, residents should be told that as well. Columbia Gas customers need to know they are not returning themselves and their children to homes that could once again become bombs.

The President of the gas company held a brief press conference Friday afternoon but all he said was that the investigation would be taken over by the NTSB and would “take time.” If you stick around about five minutes into this, the media starts pressing him about lack of transparency but he keeps falling back on the NTSB, basically saying he can’t answer any questions about the cause of this. Here’s the clip:

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