On September 14, 2018, the unthinkable happened in Lawrence, MA when the pressure in the natural gas lines reached a breaking point and exploded. Luckily, most will never have to experience the terror that gripped South Lawrence (as well as Andover and N. Andover) families as they frantically evacuated their neighborhoods as houses exploded and caught fire. After all was said and done, 25 people were injured, a teenager was killed, and as many as 80 homes and buildings were destroyed.
We have had a little over a month to process this tragedy, but it still hurts and hits close to home. When it happened, my niece had to quickly pack her children into the car and leave everything behind. Ten minutes later, two houses next to her apartment building exploded. The daughter of MPU Parent Leader and Super-Mom-of-the-Year Marta Rentas had given birth only three days earlier to her baby boy and was unable to go home. When I was at the store purchasing items for Marta’s newborn grandson, the store clerk told me about a coworker who had frantically left work in the aftermath of the explosions. She had heard that her nephew had been killed. The bright young teenager had just gotten his driver’s license less than a week before. He has been sitting in his new car with friends in the driveway. His mother was going to cook dinner for the boys. When she turned on the stove, the blast caused the chimney to shatter and tumble, landing on the young man’s car below. My heart goes out to the family and the community for the loss of this smart, young man. I would liked to have seen more coverage of the young man whose life was taken too soon.
Thankfully, this disaster couldn’t have happened to a community better prepared to deal with it. Lawrence had just recently flexed its organizing muscles to ensure that the victims of Hurricane Maria received relief and they would do the same now. What I saw on the ground was spectacular and frankly, exactly what I expected. Lawrence City Councilor Pavel Payano and Vladimir Saldana of Lawrence Community Works provided leadership and countless everyday community members showed up ready to roll up their sleeves and help.
In the aftermath, one thing is clear. This nightmare could have been prevented. Some of the pipes that exploded were over 100 years old. I’m not an expert, but I would think that natural gas pipeline technology has changed since we stopped burning coal 60 years ago. Lawrence deserves answers. Asking why there was a lack of inspection is an obvious starting place. However, accepting the risk that came with not doing inspections was a decision.
Why was this city, and the safety of its citizens, not properly considered?
In America, systemic structural racism is entwined with public policy, including environmental policy. From the location of hazardous waste and sewage treatment facilities, illegal dumping, inmates at MCI-Norfolk drinking water with toxic levels of manganese that can cause neurological disorders, and the disproportionate government response to natural disasters and public crises, it’s made clear that environmental racism exists. It’s something we cannot ignore and must look into in the aftermath of this tragedy.
To those that say this tragedy shouldn’t be politicized, I disagree. Political failure led to this tragedy and if we don’t act, more tragedies will occur. Currently, National Grid is locking out Steel Union Local 12003 whose 1,200 workers fix leaks and maintain our gas pipeline infrastructure. Why? Because they want don’t want to ensure their access to high-quality health care. These are the types of decisions that put our communities and workers at risk.
My greatest hope is that the relief for the gas explosions is equitably distributed. A Tewksbury parent lamented that they noticed a difference in the response between Andover versus Lawrence. The parent noted, “Most of the area affected was in the suburban part of Lawrence and they’re still at the bottom of the list.” One of her coworkers, who lives in Andover, received multiple callbacks, while the coworker living in Section 8 did not hear back for days. This is unacceptable.
We are a strong and vital community. We will survive this. But, we need to make sure this never occurs again. We need to ensure that Lawrence families who had to uproot their lives receive more that an “oops” and a Market Basket card. This tragedy will be a part of Lawrence’s history forever, let’s make sure our leaders learn something from it.
By Ed Shoemaker