It’s A Matter Of Safety

Guest Opinion: Addressing issues of gas leaks and pipe replacement is critical in Greater Fall River. It's a matter of safety. Those five simple words are often used to underscore a situation where the public's best interest is at stake. And today, throughout the commonwealth — from Gloucester to Fall River — safety concerns over the state's antiquated natural gas distribution system are sounding alarms that must be dealt with expediently and properly.

The outmoded pipes have resulted in leaks that have set entire communities in fear and on edge, but in spite of a significant threat to the public and the environment, the state’s current policies do little or nothing to motivate utility companies to repair or replace leak-prone pipes. Truth be told, the existing layered regulatory structure creates a financial deterrent for utility companies to place pipeline repair or replacement on their priority list.

Gas Bubbles

Gas Bubbles

That said, gas companies have no qualms about charging their customers for the lost gas, translating into Massachusetts businesses and residents paying to the tune of tens of millions of dollars every year for gas they never receive. Indeed, a study released by the office of Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey in 2013 indicates that the state’s gas customers paid between $640 million and $1.5 billion from 2000–2011 for gas that never reached their homes and businesses.

Which brings us to a very local case in point; a recent natural gas leak in the Taunton River, an incident investigated by Liberty Utilities, the Fall River area’s natural gas provider. Despite the leak producing bubbling in the river and an odor of gas, a spokesman for Liberty Utilities at the time of the late 2014 leak was quoted as saying, “there’s little danger, though people in the area may notice a smell of gas.”

The question begs — how do you quantify danger as “little” and furthermore who wouldn’t worry if confronted with the smell of natural gas — particularly children, the elderly and those whose health is compromised by respiratory ailments?

The same Liberty Utilities spokesman went on to say that all appropriate agencies, including the Fall River police and fire department had been notified, which brings up yet another sticking point.

As a result of Fall River’s degraded gas distribution system, the impact to emergency services — in particular the Fire Department — is taking an additional toll on a nearly depleted overtime budget.

More aggressive action is needed on the part of Liberty Utilities in the way it addresses gas leaks and pipe replacement. Granted, Liberty Utilities is a business and the ultimate goal of business is profit, but there comes a time when the bottom line must be measured more in public and environmental safety than in dollars and cents.

Dan Hurley is president of Utility Workers Union of America Local 369, which represents workers of power plants throughout southeastern Massachusetts.

This article originally appeared on UWUA369.org