By the time you read this, it will have been a whole week since natural gas lines blew up, causing havoc and destruction in Lawrence and Andover. That is beyond our usual coverage area, sure. But I have always felt the best way to ensure I follow up on life and job goals is to share them publicly with all my readers, and so I’m saying right here that, along with other editors and writers at DigBoston and affiliated outlets, I am determined to pursue this issue into 2019, both because it is critical and worthy and since I can see already that a seriously deceptive narrative is taking hold.
There is no easy way to say what I’m about to say, but here it is—as awful as I feel for all the families, friends, and friends of friends in certain cases who are living through a nightmare as a result of the negligence that spurred so much displacement, all of the reports about how impacted communities are standing united isn’t helping to repair gas lines or bring accountability. Only a racist would assume that the Latinx population up in Lawrence would do anything besides help one another and provide where it is needed; as such, pandering to liberals with stories of human kindness is a waste of time. What about the companies that aren’t kind? What about the politicians who smile on camera while they know the buried truth is deeply frown- and cringeworthy?
I arrived in Lawrence in the middle of the afternoon on Monday. My first stop was the lot of the abandoned Showcase Cinemas where first responders mobilized a huge command post during the explosions, which are now said to have been caused by abnormally high pressure settings. Five days later, the scene was significantly less cinematic, other than a monstrous 18-wheeler that the State Police apparently rolled off the set of a Transformers movie to help with their operations.
Our next stop was a short ride toward the heart of Lawrence and away from I-495, to where the first blast was reported on South Union Street last Wednesday. By a long-abandoned fountain at a six-way intersection lacking any signage whatsoever, two staties watched over a grounded mapping drone, while workers in hard hats and cargo pants consulted with men in black shirts from Columbia Gas. The company that supplies energy to the affected area, Columbia’s been scrambling to save face as Eversource, a rival of their parent company NiSource, has embarrassingly been brought in to help with the effort.
Next we visited Columbia’s claims servicing center. While it was first set up at a library downtown, the deluge of complainants forced the company to move into a larger space inside the high school right across the street. They also underestimated the amount of time that it would take to process all the claims, extending hours into Wednesday as it became clear that Monday wouldn’t be enough. At one point, a woman in a collared polo with a Columbia Gas logo asked if anybody was holding a red ticket. A waiting woman who still had one from her prior trip reacted like she won the lottery, then toned down her excitement after realizing that she was surrounded by hundreds of others in the position that she was in seconds earlier.
Standing among other journalists who came to witness this unfold, I realized just how easy it is to see that people who were impacted are relatively calm and to report out that there appears to be a certain progress. But it’s shortsighted to speak anything about this whole ordeal without considering the causes and effects of everything that’s happened.
The morning following my visit, Mass Gov. Charlie Baker joined Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, and others at a press conference to provide updates. What transpired amounted to little more than PR for the company responsible for the mess, with Polito thanking Columbia Gas for its “significant $10 million commitment” to recovery efforts. “I hope it’s a message of comfort for people to hear today,” she added, even thanking CEO Steve Bryant by name. “It’s not just words. There is money behind it to support your needs.”
While we’re on the topic, there’s also money behind Baker, Polito, and any number of the other pols who are allegedly seeking an equitable cleanup. Those two alone have received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from individuals and PACs tied to Columbia, its parent company NiSource, and its subcontractors, including the Dorchester-based Feeney Brothers. Columbia has spent in excess of half a million dollars lobbying in Mass over the past five years, while execs at Eversource, which Baker tapped to save the day, have pumped more than $40,000 into Baker and Polito’s war chests since 2015.
Until those relationships and power plays are widely acknowledged, I’m afraid that real recovery will not be possible.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.