Lonely vigil on Brighton St. as gas leak enters its second week

In the wake of last month’s damaging ice storm in central Mass, the Globe and other papers have been filled with news articles and op-eds critical of the performance of private utilities, like Unitil, that took weeks — literally — to get the power restored to residents in Fitchburg and other towns.

Pipes venting a natural gas leak by the train tracks on Brighton St.

Pipes venting a natural gas leak by the train tracks on Brighton St.

Belmont was spared the brunt of that storm, but a smaller drama is playing out quietly on Brighton Street that should raise some concerns about the ability of for-profit utilities to respond to large scale emergencies. Folks walking or driving the length of Brighton or, God forbid, stuck in bumper to bumper traffic there during rush hour know what I’m talking about — the voluminous natural gas leak that’s been going on right adjacent to the railroad tracks for over a week now.

The leak, which is in underground piping, is being vented at street level, and a National Grid truck sits watch a couple hundred feet away. I’ve stopped a couple times on my morning run to ask questions, and here’s what I’ve learned:

  • The truck is there at the request of the Belmont Fire Dept. which is concerned about safety, and also that they’d be deluged with calls reporting a gas leak unless people understood that the gas company was already aware of the problem.
  • National Grid is — get this — waiting for a vital replacement part to be manufactured to fix the leak. There’s no estimate on how long that will take. In the meantime, they have someone stationed on Brighton St. to “watch the leak” insofar as you can watch a colorless, highly flammable vapor.
  • The truck is there 24/7 and a tech takes measurements every hour or so. I asked “measure what? you already know its leaking.” But I guess they’re measuring to make sure the leak isn’t spreading underground to new areas.
  • There’s “no danger” of an explosion from the leaking natural gas.
  • The techs aren’t allowed to speak on behalf of the company, but are there to answer any questions the public may have.
BFD asked Nat. Grid to station a truck by the leak to keep watch.

BFD asked Nat. Grid to station a truck by the leak to keep watch.

At this point, the truck has become something of a fixture on Brighton St., as snowfalls and plowing have piled up snow around it. Even if we take National Grid on its promise that the natural gas pouring from the venting pipes poses “no danger” to the public, the bigger question here, as with the ice storm is “what if?” How will a company that has to wait two weeks to get a part made to fix a single broken gas main during normal business respond when a real disaster strikes? After all, earthquakes are rare in Massachusetts, but they’re hardly unheard of. In fact, the area has a well documented history of seismic activity with at least one recorded “violent” earthquake in the 18th century, and other smaller quakes producing damage around every couple decades. I, for one, find it hard to believe that National Grid wouldn’t have not just one, but a shelf full of replacement parts for every component of their gas network. Sitting on an active natural gas leak for weeks waiting for a part to be made is just bone headed.

In the meantime, give the Nat Grid folks a wave as you’re passing by. And please…no smoking.