The major gas leak that caused evacuations in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on Friday was started when city contractors checking water valves "inadvertently closed a gas valve" officials said Friday evening.
The leak caused hundreds of people to be evacuated from their homes and two schools early in the morning as authorities and Columbia Gas responded, just over one year after the area was rocked by gas explosions and fires.
Authorities said hours after the leak was discovered that it was safe for most evacuees to return, but didn't immediately explain what had happened, only that the problem was being fixed.
The cause of the leak was announced about 6:45 p.m. by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, Columbia Gas and the city of Lawrence in this statement:
Early this morning, while conducting a routine check of water valves in preparation of road paving, contractors working for the City of Lawrence inadvertently closed a gas valve, puncturing an active gas main. Preliminarily, it appears that this gas valve should have been disabled as part of pipeline reconstruction in 2018 and was not compliant with DPU standards. Out of an abundance of caution, Columbia Gas has identified 45 gas valves that the Department of Public Utilities has required Columbia Gas and mutual aid partners to immediately inspect and bring into compliance if necessary. The process of inspecting and remediating these valves, located near surface level of the road, will not require excavating and will be completed by Saturday. Until then, the Department has instructed all municipalities in the Merrimack Valley to suspend all construction and maintenance projects in the affected area until the valves are determined to be safe by the Department of Public Utilities. The Department will continue to closely monitor the restoration effort and Columbia Gas will be required to continue to use mobile leak detection equipment in the form of “sniffer trucks.” The small number of residents who have not yet returned home should expect to return home following completion of testing of the impacted pipeline to ensure safe operation. The Department’s investigation into the incident is ongoing.
Columbia Gas would be the ones to disable the gas line, a represntative for the utility told NBC10 Boston. The Department of Public Utilities oversees the project.
Almost all of the people who were evacuated were allowed to return home around 4:45 p.m., Columbia Gas said, with the exception of people living on Wolcott Ave., South Broadway or Carver Street between the Merrimack and Andover streets.
No one was hurt — a stark contrast from the series of gas explosions that rocked Lawrence and other parts of Merrimack Valley on Sept. 13, 2018. One person died and dozens were hurt.
"We're very grateful and fortunate that there were no reported injuries," Gov. Charlie Baker said Friday afternoon.
Baker, Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said and other officials wouldn't say what caused the gas leak, only that it's been addressed. They both added that they would provide the public with the cause of the leak as soon as they could.
"We found it and we're fixing it," Rivera said.
Firefighters responded to the area of South Broadway and Salem Street around 3:15 a.m. Upon arrival, they found a leak in a high-pressure line releasing gas in the "explosive range," Lawrence Fire Chief Brian Moriarty said. The gas was detected traveling through sewers, he added.
"People must evacuate," Rivera said on Twitter, calling the event a Level One gas leak.
Rivera said the Lawrence fire and police departments responded immediately.
Authorities were going door to door to tell people to evacuate the area, about a half-square mile along the Merrimack River from Andover to Merrimack streets and Sanborn to Parker streets, and Columbia Gas workers were checking to make sure gas had not leaked into homes. Gas and power were shut off in the impacted area amid an investigation into the cause of the leak.
"The amount of frustration to get woken up at four, 4:30 in the morning and to have to go through this again, it’s just something that should have not happened," Sen. Barry Finegold said Friday at a press conference. "It makes us all very frustrated."
Mark Kempic, president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, said that while the cause of leak was unclear, it involved a new line installed following the disastrous gas explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley last year.
MEMA called the incident a "major gas leak leading to evacuations," MassDOT official Jacquelyn Goddard said.
"Just because the affected area is smaller, does not mean that this is less dangerous or less impactful," Rivera said at a press conference Friday, referring to last year's disaster.
Columbia Gas — the utility behind the disastrous explosions last year — said they were notified of the leak at 3:12 a.m. and responded immediately.
Some 1,400 customers were without power due to the response.
Arlington Middle School at 150 Arlington St. was set up as a shelter for those who have been asked to evacuate, MEMA said. The Lawrence Public Library also said it was welcoming anyone who was displaced.
About 400 people had been registered at the shelter, according to Lloyd Ziel, the communications director of the American Red Cross of Massachusetts.
While many of those people have returned home, the Red Cross put 31 families up in hotels Friday night.
Anyone in need of housing assistance is asked to call 1-800-590-5571.
Rivera had stressed that the gas leak has been isolated to the areas affected and neighborhoods outside that perimeter are safe.
Columbia Gas crews planned to go door to door to ensure there isn't any gas in homes.
"We are taking this seriously. We are bringing crews from across Massachusetts to help out with the situation and we are suspending our other normally scheduled work today to focus on this," Kempic said.
The Wetherbee School and Lawrence Catholic Academy were closed for the day due to emergency work in the area, Rivera said.
POLITICIANS REACT TO THE LEAK
Baker said he was frustrated about the incident.
"That community has gone through an extraordinarily difficult 12 months. I don’t think anyone would dispute that," he said. "They have shown an enormous resiliency and in many cases, kindness, all the way through this. I think it’s incredible unfortunate that literally almost a year to the day they are going through another event that involves natural gas."
Lawrence marked the one-year anniversary of the Merrimack Valley gas explosions just two weeks ago. In all, those explosions and fires damaged or destroyed more than 100 homes. Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, died after a chimney exploded, crushing his car.
At least 25 others suffered injuries, and about 8,000 people were displaced due to the 2018 explosions. Thousands of customers of Columbia Gas were left without gas service, including heat and hot water, during the winter months. The explosions were blamed on over-pressurized natural gas lines.
"We’re going to want more answers to understand how something like this could happen again," Finegold said.
Gov. Charlie Baker said state officials are on scene, but at this point he still doesn't know that much about the situation.
"It's unbelievably important to all of us that whatever the situation or circumstance today, it gets contained and gets dealt with and it gets dealt with quickly. That community has gone through an extraordinarily difficult 12 months, and I don't think anyone would dispute this. I think it's incredibly unfortunate that literally almost a year to the day they're going through another event that involves natural gas."
The good news, he said, is that the leak was picked up pretty early and people are being aggressive about making sure the appropriate areas are evacuated.
"I am enormously frustrated that the people of Lawrence are having to go through yet another example of a failure of the gas system somewhere in their community," he added. "Obviously, this is not a good day for Columbia, but more importantly, it's just another tough day for the folks in South Lawrence."
U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, who were critical of Columbia Gas in the wake of last year's explosions, both issued statements about Friday's incident.
"There appears to be no damage so far in Lawrence, and we are thankful to our first responders for their quick action this morning. But we need to know how a major leak in the same area could have happened just a year after the @ColumbiaGasMA disaster," Markey said on Twitter. "Lawrence residents shouldn't have to wonder if their gas pipelines are a ticking time bomb. No American should."
"Today, a major gas leak was reported in Lawrence, and over 100 residents are being evacuated," Warren said. "We are deeply grateful to Lawrence’s first responders and Mayor Rivera for their quick action to keep residents safe."
She also demanded answers from Columbia Gas "about why they keep placing our residents and first responders at risk."
The two senators have been working to pass legislation named after Rendon that is aimed at making sure gas companies prioritize the safety of the communities they serve.
U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan, whose district includes Lawrence, said in a statement she was "outraged" by the news of the gas leak and ensuing evacuations.
"The citizens of Lawrence have been through enough," she said. "With the memory of last year’s deadly disaster still fresh, Columbia Gas owes our community a detailed explanation of how this new section of pipeline has already failed."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that sources had said the gas leak was the result of human error. Sources said only that it "may have" been the result of human error.