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The pressure in pipelines before last Thursday’s Massachusetts gas explosions and fires was 12 times higher than it should have been, according to a letter from the state’s U.S. senators to executives of the utility in charge of the natural gas pipelines.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey sent the letter seeking answers about the Massachusetts gas explosions from the heads of Columbia Gas – the utility company that serves the affected communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover – and NiSource, the parent company of Columbia Gas.

“The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has reported that the pressure in the Columbia Gas system should have been around 0.5 pounds per square inch (PSI), but readings in the area reached at least 6 PSI — twelve times higher than the system was intended to hold,” the letter said.

Before the explosions, Columbia Gas had notified customers it was “upgrading natural gas lines in neighborhoods across the state.” The company said the procedures would provide increased reliability and “enhanced safety features.”

Senators seek answers in Massachusetts gas explosions

An aerial view of the one of the communities affected by last Thursday’s Massachusetts gas explosions, which have prompted the state’s senators to send letters to Columbia Gas and its parent company, NiSource, seeking answers.

Massachusetts gas explosions: quick reply sought

The pressure spike registered in a Columbia Gas control room in Ohio, the senators said in the letter, which requests a reply by tomorrow.

“We write to request that you provide us with information in order to help the American people understand why this terrible disaster occurred, whether the company was sufficiently prepared to respond to an incident of this magnitude, and how we can prevent any similar tragedy in the future,” the senators wrote.

Dozens of explosions and fires last Thursday killed one person – Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence – and injured more than 24 others. Approximately 8,600 customers were affected, and many had to evacuate their homes through the weekend. In addition, they might have to go without gas service for weeks.

The explosions are being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt has said the investigation is partially focused on pressure sensors that were connected to a natural gas pipeline that was being taken out of service shortly before the blasts.

Massachusetts gas explosions: “Armageddon”

The Massachusetts State Police (MSP) said there were at least 70 reports of fires, explosions and gas odor in the three communities about 30 miles north of Boston.

“It looked like Armageddon,” Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield said last Thursday. “There were billows of smoke coming from Lawrence behind me. I could see plumes of smoke in front of me. … It just looked like an absolute war zone.”

Said North Andover resident Phil DeCologero: “More than a dozen houses in North Andover went up in flames. … We’re a 30,000-person town, 27 square miles. Given the number of fires, no municipality twice our size would be able to absorb that kind of catastrophe all at once.”

Massachusetts gas explosions: “extended restoration”

A spokesperson said last Thursday that Columbia Gas officials expect “an extended restoration effort.” Columbia Gas is “working with the appropriate authorities to investigate this incident in order to understand its cause.”

The spokesperson said that Columbia Gas will visit each of the approximately 8,600 affected customers to shut off their gas meter and conduct an inspection.

Massachusetts gas explosions: What causes over-pressurized pipes?

According to earthsafe.com, the most common cause of over-pressurization occurs when there is an increase in temperature of a pipe section that is blocked between two closed valves. This happens because cooler fuel may be drawn from a tank into a higher temperature pipeline. It can also occur because an exterior pipeline may increase in temperature as the ambient temperature increases.

Thermal expansion of fluid will cause a pressure increase that exceeds the pressure rating of pipes and valves. That pressure must be relieved through safety relief valves, which should be installed in any pipeline that could be blocked at the ends by closed valves. The safety relief valves should discharge to a return flow pipe or dedicated discharge pipe that is open to the fuel supply tank.

Some fuel system valves are available with internal pressure relief devices, however in general external relief devices are used.