Blast-Hit Gas Line Pressure Was 12 Times Normal, Massachusetts Senators Say

(Bloomberg) -- The pressure in the Massachusetts natural gas pipe system rocked by a series of blasts late last week was 12 times higher than normal, according the state’s U.S. senators.

NiSource Inc.’s Columbia Gas of Massachusetts system had readings of at least 6 pounds per square inch, eclipsing the network’s usual 0.5 pounds, Democratic Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren said in a letter to the company on Monday. The Sept. 13 incident left one person dead and more than 20 injured.

“Columbia Gas does not have a spotless operating history in Massachusetts,” the senators said, citing a 2012 explosion that injured 17 people, along with six gas leaks going back to 2004.

NiSource declined to comment on the senators’ statements.

Markey and Warren submitted 19 questions to NiSource, seeking details about pipeline work in the area before the explosion, the timeline of the company’s response and whether safety valves on replacement pipes can prevent future disasters. The company has until close of business on Wednesday to respond.

Aging Pipes

It’s not yet clear how old the distribution pipes involved in the incident were. The NiSource unit was already working to upgrade aging infrastructure in all three locations hit by blasts. The company has said the pipelines were built before 1970 but has not confirmed an exact date.

"We’re not able to nail it down specifically at this point, but this is the oldest infrastructure in this area and some of the oldest in their nationwide gas distribution system,” said Frank Petosa, an attorney at Morgan & Morgan, which on Tuesday launched the first class action lawsuit in response to the incident.

“They’re all old cast or wrought iron pipes that were put in place in the early 1900s, well before World War II,” he said by telephone. The company was “aware of the eroding or corroding aspects of the pipes and the problems they might have."

Ratings Response

S&P Global Ratings changed its outlook on NiSource to negative from stable while reaffirming its BBB+ long-term rating.

While it can take time for details of this event to emerge and to quantify costs, it appears to be “credit negative” for the parent company and its utility, Moody’s Investors Service said in report led by Lesley Ritter. Rapid growth and debt accumulation has left “little cushion for unforeseen events,” and Moody’s expects regulators to delay making decisions on rate cases until further details are available on the blasts, the report said.

Moody’s maintained its stable outlook on the company with a Baa2 rating.

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