Merrimack Valley recovery: Phase II

WHEN A NATURAL GAS DISASTER CAUSED EXPLOSIONS and fires throughout Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover in September 2018, GBPCA contractors and Local 12 plumbers were among the first to mobilize for the recovery efforts. Some 1,200 mechanics fanned out across the communities and helped restore service to about 8,500 Columbia Gas customers.

At first, the recovery teams replaced all boilers, hot water heaters, and other appliances with new fixtures. With winter fast approaching, however, a decision was made to temporarily repair appliances and fixtures, when possible, rather than replace them. That allowed the plumbers to proceed more quickly and get every household and business back up and running with heat and hot water by February 1, 2019.

When the initial recovery was deemed complete, a contingent of Local 12 plumbers remained on site to troubleshoot and provide service as necessary. In early April, the second phase of the recovery began, and plumbers returned to replace the fixtures that they had initially repaired.

Why replace all of the appliances if they were functioning? “The excess gas could have adversely effected the fixtures,” explains Jim Vaughan, Local 12 business agent. “They could fail down the line.” Vaughan coordinated both phases of the Local’s recovery efforts in the Merrimack Valley.

The phase II team included four Local 12-affiliated contractors: William F. Lynch Co. of Worcester, Harry Grodsky Company of Billerica, Jeffrey Peabody Plumbing & Heating of Danvers, and Glionna Plumbing & Heating Services of Saugus. According to Vaughan, Glionna had been part of the recovery’s first phase when it was a non-union shop.

“They saw Local 12 in action,” he says, referring to the massive response of the union in the wake of the disaster. “That motivated them to join us.”

According to Mike Glionna, the shop’s owner, affiliating with Local 12 has opened up new opportunities. “Everybody knows it’s tough out there,” he says, referring to the scarcity of trained mechanics amid the region’s booming construction industry. “Now I have access to manpower for bigger and more diverse jobs.” Among the projects on which the contractor is working are three restaurants at Logan Airport.

“We are happy to have Glionna as a new signatory contractor,” Vaughan adds.

During the second phase of the Merrimack Valley recovery, the general contractor worked with the plumbers and arranged assessments of the customers requiring new appliances. The plumbing contractors then made arrangements to procure and install clothes dryers, water heaters, boilers, and other fixtures. Many of the replacements involved older gas boilers. Unlike the initial recovery phase during the winter, the plumbers could temporarily leave customers without heat in the late spring and summer without causing much discomfort. Hot water, however, remained a priority throughout the process.

The second phase ended in late July. With the recovery program over, Vaughan says that around 18,000 appliances were replaced in total. “Now that we can look back, the numbers are wild,” he notes.

There is another wild statistic to consider, according to the business agent: There were 92 plumbing inspectors on site during the recovery process.

“They are the unsung heroes in this,” says Vaughan. Considering the daunting task they faced, the chaos that they endured, and the urgent need that the emergency required, he adds, “I don’t think the inspectors got the credit they deserved.”

The crisis may be over, but that doesn’t mean the plumbers will completely disappear from Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover.

“We will still be on call,” Vaughan says. “We need to make sure everything works, especially during a cold snap.”