Joined by Rondon family, Senator Markey outlines new legislation in wake of Merrimack Valley natural gas disaster
Washington (April 8, 2019) – Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Congresswoman Lori Trahan (MA-03) joined Merrimack Valley elected officials, state legislators, first responders, and community organizations today in Lawrence, Massachusetts to honor the late Leonel Rondon and the Rondon family by announcing new federal pipeline safety legislation named in his honor. The new legislation responds to deficiencies uncovered during the investigation into the September 13, 2019 Merrimack Valley natural gas pipeline explosions and fires by Senators Markey and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). The legislation, the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act, is intended to strengthen pipeline safety by closing regulatory loopholes and increasing safety standards. Congresswoman Trahan will be introducing companion legislation in the House of Representatives.
The bill, sponsored in the Senate by Senators Markey, Warren, and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), directs the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to establish regulations that would improve gas pipeline operators’ risk management plans, improve emergency response coordination with the public and first responders, institute best industry practices for holistic safety management, and mandate use of accurate and reliable maps and records. The regulations established by the legislation would also require the use of professional engineers to approve significant system changes and on-site monitoring of pressure regulation stations so that qualified employees could quickly shut off gas flow in the event of an emergency. These regulation stations would also have to have additional safety features to help avoid dangerous over-pressurizations, like the one that caused the Merrimack Valley disaster. Finally, the Leonel Rondon Safety Act would raise civil penalty limits to better deter wrongdoing and reflect the costs that safety failures can have on communities.
This Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is holding a hearing titled, “Pipeline Safety: Federal Oversight and Stakeholder Perspectives”, and witnesses testifying will include Howard “Skip” Elliott, Administrator of PHMSA, as well as Robert Sumwalt, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the federal investigator of the Merrimack Valley disaster. Senator Markey, who serves on the Commerce Committee, will be questioning the witnesses about the latest on the investigation and the new legislation.
“We owe it to the Rondon family, the residents of Merrimack Valley, and all of the American people to put in place requirements to ensure that no natural gas company is allowed to shortchange safety ever again,” said Senator Markey. “Without strengthening safety regulations, America’s natural gas pipeline infrastructure remains a ticking time bomb. We need to close the regulatory safety holes that exist by taking the lessons from this tragedy and turning them into laws so that we protect all communities in the Commonwealth and across the country from the sort of system-wide failures we saw during the Merrimack Valley disaster. The Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act will end the pipeline safety status quo by closing regulatory loopholes and increasing safety standards. I thank Senator Warren for her partnership on this investigation, and Representatives Trahan and Moulton for their leadership on this issue.”
“The Merrimack Valley pipeline explosions could have been completely avoided if Columbia Gas executives had valued safety over profits,” said Senator Warren.“The Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act would help prevent disasters like this from happening again by ensuring that cutting corners on safety is a thing of the past. I thank my colleague and dear friend Senator Markey for his leadership on this critical issue.”
“Without this legislation, the web of natural gas pipelines that reach into every community in America are just tragic accidents waiting to happen," said Senator Blumenthal. "This bill will hold natural gas companies accountable for prioritizing profits over safety by failing to prepare for low-probability but high-consequence explosions, like the one that claimed Leonel Rondon’s life in Lowell, Massachusetts. Our outdated regulatory system failed the Rondon family and the entire Merrimack Valley community at every level – with devastating consequences.”
“Leonel Rondon was a student celebrating his new driver’s license the day of last September’s gas explosions across the Merrimack Valley,” said Rep. Trahan. “A house exploded, causing a piece of chimney to collapse onto the car he was in, killing him. His sister, Lucianny, testified at a Senate field hearing right here in Lawrence last November. She said ‘we hope there will be justice for [Leonel] and the community. Nobody should ever have to go through what my family has gone through ever again.’ She is right. Congress must act based on the lessons we have learned from this tragedy. I am proud to stand with Senator Markey today to unveil new legislation to help make sure that no other community across the country has to go through what Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover went through last year.”
“Leonel Rondon's death was preventable, and no family in America should lose their son or daughter because of a pipeline disaster,” said Rep. Moulton. “It’s up to Congress to make sure this never happens again. The Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act is a good first step to holding companies like Columbia Gas responsible for the safety of their customers. Congress should pass this immediately so it can restore peace of mind in communities across the country who are living in fear that their home, school or business is going to explode because the people responsible for preventing pipeline accidents are asleep at the switch.”
“Our family is honored that this law will be named after Leonel,” said the Rondon family. “All of us must make sure that we remain safe and that this type of tragedy can never happen again.”
On November 26, 2019, Senator Markey hosted a Senate Commerce Committee field hearing in Lawrence with Senator Warren, Senator Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), then-Congresswoman Niki Tsongas (MA-03), Congressman Seth Moulton (MA-06), and Congresswoman Trahan. The hearing focused on the September 13 natural gas pipeline explosions and fires that killed Leonel Rondon, injured more than two dozen, and damaged more than 100 structures.
During the hearing, Senator Markey outlined several key initial findings from the investigation his and Senator Warren’s offices conducted: one, Columbia Gas and NiSource allowed an unqualified engineer to approve the pipeline construction work plan that led to this disaster. Two, Columbia Gas officials who had an understanding of the full pipeline system never saw or signed off on the pipeline construction work plan that led to this disaster. Three, Columbia Gas had not adopted best practices for safety three years after its own industry made these recommendations. And four, the woefully insufficient safety, operations and response plans that Columbia Gas did institute never adequately contemplated a disaster of the magnitude Merrimack Valley suffered, and thus the company was not prepared to stop it or respond to it.