What I Learned from the Merrimack Valley Gas Disaster

September 13, 2019

By Sarah Griffith

Last September 13, three towns in Massachusetts went from a calm, 70° day to a conflagration in minutes. A series of explosions followed by eighty fires suddenly broke out. Roads were chaos as electricity and street lighting went down, communications infrastructure failed, and visibility was cut by billowing fumes. One person died, dozens were injured, and 30,000 people were evacuated. Over a billion dollars has been spent refurbishing 8,500 homes and repairing miles of gas pipelines.

Given the scale of ongoing tragedies in the paper everyday—mass shootings, hurricanes, and political corruption—I have to admit that it was hard to take in the implications of this massive event immediately. It was only over time and by volunteering with Gas Leaks Allies that the dangers of the gas distribution system started to become apparent.

At the invitation of a friend, I began attending meetings and hearing descriptions of the gas distribution in Massachusetts. A kind of steampunk vision started to form in my mind. Miles and miles of cast iron installed as much as a hundred years ago, leaking from rotting jute stuffed at the joints. Corroded steel pipes hissing explosive gas into buildings and into the atmosphere from beneath our streets. Plastic pipes that can melt when exposed to heat or an electric arc. The idea that gas is natural, clean, safe, or a bridge fuel to the future was rapidly dissolving in my mind.

I started to wonder what was going on in my own home. I organized indoor air testing in my neighborhood and found that my house had the highest levels of methane. My husband has asthma, which I now know can be exacerbated by the volatile organic compounds in gas. I learned to recognize trees that are dying from leaks around their root systems and about the gas workers who risk their lives to keep the system running. I read about other gas incidents where the design of the system means that a break at any point disconnects thousands of customers downstream.  

Relying on gas for our energy is clearly not safe. We need to protect our citizens, workers, and environment from this explosive, lethal gas. But we also need to keep heating our homes and businesses without going back to whale oil. The good news is that cost-effective alternatives are available.

The strategy we propose in Rolling the Dice: Assessment of Gas Safety in Massachusetts asks the state legislature to put in place laws that would triage the worst leaks, the ones that endanger people’s lives and are most damaging to our climate, while simultaneously accelerating the transition to clean energy—to geothermal district heating, solar thermal, and the innovations that will certainly come along. Let’s leave the steampunk system behind in the last century and adopt the recommendations in this document now to realize a positive vision of our future.