Gas Explosions

As Steve Bryant, left, the president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts looks on, Joe Hamrock, right, president and CEO of NiSource, speaks to U.S. senators and representatives during a hearing in November on gas pipeline safety in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts. NiSource has appointed former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to chair a safety commission.

LAWRENCE, Mass. — Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood will help oversee efforts to improve safety and reduce risk at NiSource, the utility company blamed for natural gas explosions and fires in Massachusetts six months ago.

The Merrillville-based company announced Thursday that the former Republican congressman from Illinois will chair a new, five-member board charged with reviewing the company's rollout of a new safety management system across the seven states it serves.

As transportation secretary under President Barack Obama, LaHood oversaw the Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Administration, which regulates natural gas and other pipeline systems.

NiSource, the parent company of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts as well as NIPSCO in northern Indiana, said the new safety system will provide a more structured and consistent way for it to anticipate and reduce risk. Similar systems are standard in the nuclear power and aviation industries, but aren't common in the natural gas industry, according to Joe Hamrock, the company's CEO.

"The safety practices we have tend to focus on learning from incidents that have happened, versus anticipating incidents that might happen," he said by phone Thursday. "So it's about enhancing that and adding a lot more rigor."

Federal investigators have said NiSource and its Massachusetts subsidiary lacked the internal procedures that could have prevented the Sept. 13 disaster, which killed one person, injured dozens of others and left thousands without gas service for months across Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.

Among the errors cited in the National Transportation Safety Board's ongoing investigation is that an engineer had failed to account for a critical sensor line when drafting work plans for a routine pipeline replacement project in Lawrence.

The engineer also failed to have other company departments and engineers review the plans. The company did not have a field technician onsite during the construction work because it had largely discontinued the practice, the NTSB report found.

In the wake of the disaster, NiSource began taking a range of safety measures, including installing automatic shut off devices across all its low pressure gas systems to protect against over pressurization like that which triggered the explosions and fires in September.