‘Least informed and the last to act’: Baker, Rivera slam Columbia Gas amid state of emergency

LAWRENCE, MASS. (WHDH) - LAWRENCE, MASS. (WHDH) – Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency after he and Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera slammed Columbia Gas for their lack response following disastrous gas explosions and fires that displaced residents of three Merrimack Valley communities.

Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence were rocked by gas explosions and several fires around 5 p.m. Thursday, drawing emergency responders from across the region to battle the between 60 and 80 fires that broke out almost simultaneously due to a situation involving the communities’ gas lines.

RELATED: ‘Like a war zone’: 1 dead, dozens injured after gas explosions rock Merrimack Valley

Baker declared the state of emergency during a press conference Friday afternoon, allowing officials to appoint Eversource as the new company in charge after Columbia Gas failed to follow through with their preliminary plans.

“We believe that will make a big difference with respect to the relationship of what gets told to us and what actually happens on the ground and the representations that are made to the people in these three communities,” he said.

Eversource president William Akley says crews will respond in three phases, which will take weeks to complete:

  1. Ensure properties are cleared to restore power with the coordination of National Grid.
  2. Make sure the distribution network that has been affected by the overpressurization is safe, allowing crews to restore service onto the network.
  3. Assure that beyond every meter in every customer’s home that the houses are safe.

“At the end of the day, we’re just getting our hands around it,” Akley said. “We have a huge task ahead of us.”

Officials and the nearly 8,600 Columbia Gas customers grew frustrated with the company following the destructive events, which led to one death and several people injured.

RELATED: Columbia Gas customers frustrated with lack of answers following explosions, fires

Rivera says Columbia Gas failed to come up with a coherent plan that would help answer what happened.

“The least informed and the last to act has been Columbia Gas,” he said. “I think we’re about hour 23 into this and nothing is clear to anyone, at least no one that doesn’t work for Columbia Gas.”

Baker recalled the company’s communication with officials as differing from their actions throughout the day Friday after they were given the night to come up with a strategy to make sure the homes were safe.

“If somebody makes a representation to us, we expect that representation to be honored,” he said. “The performance relevant to those representations has been so far below what was talked about this morning that has raised major issues in our mind about the leadership team’s ability there to actually deliver to the people of Massachusetts.”

Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan applauded Bakers’ decision to put Eversource in charge of the recovery.

“People want to go back to their homes, and I am confident that this is a giant step in the right direction,” he said. “Our attempts to work closely with Columbia Gas during this crisis have been met with little more than phone calls unreturned and questions unanswered.”

Shortly after Baker and Rivera spoke to the media, President of Columbia Gas Steve Bryant addressed the public for the first time since the incident, arguing that, “We’ve been using all our resources to get this project as far down the road as possible.”

“I respect the governor’s judgment,” he continued. “The governor has the same interests as we do. We want to restore service to these customers.”

Columbia Gas continues to shut off gas to customers’ homes and businesses as the National Transportation Safety Board investigates the cause of the explosions and fires.

This is a developing story; stay with 7News on-air and online for the latest developments.

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