This is no time to be playing with gas; yet fuel fossils haven’t gotten the word

By Mike Prokosch
Special to the Reporter

Do you feel safe bringing gas into your home to fuel your furnace or your stove?

Five homes exploded in Lawrence in September and another 125 caught fire when a gas contractor re-connected gas supply pipelines in the street and fed high-pressure gas into the low-pressure local pipe system.

Gas flooded into homes. In some, where it found a spark or flame, it ignited.

Three weeks later, another gas crew repeated the error and connected high-pressure supply lines to the local low-pressure system in Woburn. They caught the error immediately and nobody was hurt, but the gas company cut off supplies to about 300 homes until they could make sure everything was safe.

The Lawrence disaster and the Woburn scare have something in common: The gas workers on scene were not part of their companies’ full-time union workforce; they were working for a subcontractor and didn’t have the union’s decades of experience handling live gas.

Hiring non-union contractors was standard practice in the Lawrence case, where workers were installing new pipe. Decades ago, gas unions gave up that work; they retained “live gas” repairs and regular maintenance on existing pipe. Woburn was different and maybe more worrisome.

Four months ago, our gas company – National Grid – locked out its union workforce and hired replacement workers to do their jobs. Those replacement workers were doing routine maintenance in Woburn – normally union work –when someone made a big mistake and connected a high-pressure pipe to Woburn’s lower-pressure local system.

This disaster-in-the-making is what the gas unions feared. Since the lockout started, the unions at National Grid have documented dozens of safety violations. “Every day the experienced, locked-out workers aren’t working, National Grid is rolling the dice,” said Local 12012 president John Buonopane. “I honestly believe [the Woburn violation] wouldn’t have happened if our guys had been on the job.”

Why this four-month lockout? The gas unions are negotiating a new contract. They want more training and more inspectors to guarantee public safety. National Grid doesn’t want to pay for that, and it wants to cut the benefits that today’s workers get when the company hires new workers. National Grid made $4.8 billion in worldwide profits last year, of which $2 billion came from Trump’s corporate tax cuts.

Can you say “share the profits?” National Grid can’t.

Since the lockout started, gas repair work in National Grid’s territory has slowed to a crawl. New businesses and developers can’t get their buildings hooked up for service. The governor and mayor are asking National Grid to settle with the union. But the company seems more interested in grinding the union’s face into pavement than in repairing pipes.

On Oct. 30, the Boston City Council will hold a well-timed hearing on gas safety in Boston. Councillor Matt O’Malley, who will chair the hearing, shepherded an ordinance on gas leaks through the council two years ago. The ordinance calls for certified gas technicians (aka union workers) to check all repairs before pipes are reconnected (see the problem in Woburn). But National Grid is suing the city to block the ordinance, saying it improperly interferes with its labor relations.

This is no time to be playing with gas. The UN’s latest climate report says we need to get off fossil fuels like gas now if we don’t want the planet to melt down.

Traditional utility companies need to work with public officials to transform themselves so they can deliver clean, climate-friendly power as the 21st century moves along.

But National Grid and the other fuel fossils aren’t looking to that future. They want to turn back the clock to the early 1900s when, in the words of coal baron George F. Baer, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for – not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of this country.”

This 1901 quote from plutocrat JP Morgan is still more appropriate: “I owe the public nothing.”

Mike Prokosch lives in Dorchester.