This editorial has been updated to reflect that Liberty Utilities reached out on Oct. 27 with information that the outage was caused by "a malfunction of the control equipment at the plant." 

Last week’s Liberty Utilities gas outage in Keene was certainly inconvenient to many. The incident affected more than 1,000 customers in the Elm City. Several downtown restaurants reported either closing or curtailing their menus while service was out.

Whether it was dangerous remains unknown, as the company has yet to reveal exactly what caused the outage. It’s said the cause is still being investigated.

Thus far, the most Liberty has said is that “a malfunction” at Liberty’s Keene production facility caused a drop in gas pressure. The company, which serves 1,200 homes and businesses in the city, did say the problem didn’t present any threat to the public. At the same time, while it was essentially repaired the day the problem occurred, last Wednesday, some customers were still without service by Saturday.

In any case, the utility needs to be up front about the cause of this outage and any future issue. And if it isn’t, those overseeing the utility at the city, state or federal level must insist on such transparency.

One need not look far for evidence of how serious such issues can be. A 2018 incident in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, Mass., caused a series of explosions and fires in roughly 40 homes. Some homes were flattened. One person was killed and 25 injured. The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation found it was caused by pressure issues — specifically, that high-pressure gas lines were fed into a low-pressure system in which lines were being replaced, and which was regulated by the wrong type of sensor to handle the high-pressure. In addition to multiple class-action lawsuits and other claims, Columbia Gas pleaded guilty to violating federal pipeline safety laws.

That’s not to equate this incident with that in Massachusetts, or Liberty’s handling of its lines with Columbia’s. But such incidents remain in people’s memory. And it’s also worth noting the company has had its own issues in Keene.

A power outage at Liberty’s Emerald Street distribution center in December 2015 caused a citywide gas problem in which emergency personnel transported four people to the hospital and checked more than 1,000 homes and businesses for carbon monoxide.

A gas leak on Russell Street the next year briefly closed a portion of that road, and a ruptured gas line under West Street, near Central Square, closed the downtown road for several hours in May 2017 while Liberty technicians and first responders repaired the line.

And a portion of Roxbury Street in Keene was closed for about seven hours by a leaking gas main in March.

Liberty has been working to convert Keene’s propane/air system to natural gas since state regulators approved that project in July 2019. It’s also been trying to gain approval for a major expansion of its system statewide, via construction of a pipeline that would bring natural gas to New England from states to the south or west.

Natural gas is extremely dangerous — noxious, flammable, explosive. With lines running throughout Keene’s downtown, citizens have the right to transparency, not just assurances that everything is fine.

a malfunction of the control equipment

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