By Barbara Taormina
The pipelines are old, 168 leaks have been identified and 1,200 workers who know how to maintain and fix the system have been locked out of their jobs over contract disputes, but National Grid insists that that Malden’s natural gas system is sound.
“I think you can be assured that Malden is safe,” said Dan Cameron, a National Grid community and customer manager, who met with the City Council this week to answer questions about the city’s natural gas infrastructure.
With last month’s natural gas disaster in Merrimack Valley fresh on the minds of many residents, and this week’s natural gas shutdown to protect about 300 homes in Woburn in the news, councillors asked Cameron for details about the city’s natural gas service and public safety. Cameron explained that National Grid serve 116 communities throughout the state with 11,000 miles of pipelines. “Overall, the system is very safe, but it’s upwards of 100 years old,” said Cameron.
Roughly 29 percent of the entire system is made up of old cast-iron or steel pipes. Cameron wasn’t sure exactly what percent of Malden’s piping system is that old. He said it could be more, or it could be less than 29 percent.
National Grid has an ongoing capital improvement plan to replace the aging pipelines, which the company estimates will be completed by 2035. Work toward that goal is currently on hold because of the lockout.
Councillors asked about Malden’s old pipes and if National Grid has information about their age and location. Cameron said the company did have those records, but they are not public because of Homeland Security regulations. However, that information is available to the city’s Department of Public Works.
“We also work with the city to coordinate gas pipe improvements with road work,” he said.
Several councillors asked about gas leaks and National Grid’s response to reports from customers about odors of natural gas. Gas leaks are ranked according to the threat they pose to public safety. A Grade 1 leak requires immediate repair. Grade 2 leaks must be repaired within either six months or one year depending on the severity of the problem. Grade 3 leaks, which do not pose a public safety risk, must be monitored and reassessed annually until the pipe is repaired or replaced.
Cameron said Malden currently has 24 Grade 2 leaks that could potentially become hazardous and must be repaired with 12 months and six additional Grade 2A leaks that need to be fixed within six months. The city also logged 138 Grade 3 leaks.
“I guess we have all gotten used to living with the smell of gas,” said Ward 4 Councillor Ryan O’Malley, who urged residents to call National Grid at 1-800-233-5325 to report any, and all, suspected leaks. “We need to know where the gas leaks are,” added O’Malley.
Cameron said National Grid responds to all reports of possible leaks even when they have made previous site visits and determined that there were not immediate public safety threats.
Although Cameron repeatedly said Malden’s natural gas infrastructure is safe, several councillors said public safety is dependent on more than just the pipes under city streets.
“A natural gas system is a very quirky thing,” said Councillor-at-Large Steve Winslow. “Workers who have worked on this stuff for a long time have the institutional knowledge that can help protect us.” Winslow stressed that natural gas line work is dangerous and should be done by experienced people who feel protected enough through their union to raise public safety issues.
“Having 1,200 workers out there sitting on the sidelines when this stuff needs to be done is a tragedy,” he said. “We want to see this lockout resolved so that those people can get out there and start fixing the infrastructure that need it.”