Norfolk Lawmaker: Gas Detector Bill Could Save Lives

The Massachusetts Statehouse. (Photo by Ana Goni-Lessan/BU News Service)

Diane McLaughlin
Boston University Statehouse Program

This article was also published in the The Sun Chronicle

NORFOLK — Seven years after a propane tank explosion killed a construction worker, a local legislator wants to prevent future tragedies.

Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, has filed legislation to require combustible gas detectors in all new and renovated residences. Massachusetts currently requires dwellings to only have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

Dooley, an on-call firefighter and EMT with the Plainville Fire Department, had filed a similar bill in the last legislative session and was surprised it failed. He said the gas industry saw the bill as singling out specific types of gas as dangerous.

“I changed the language during the process last time, but it was a little too late,” Dooley said.

The current bill defines combustible gas as “including, but not limited to, propane and natural gas.”

Dooley is optimistic that the House will debate the bill this session. It is currently with the Legislature’s Committee for Public Safety and Homeland Security, which has until next June to decide the bill’s fate. Formal sessions for the current legislature end July 31, 2018.

Several manufacturers make combination carbon monoxide and combustible gas detectors. The combination devices cost only slightly more than the carbon monoxide detectors currently required in Massachusetts, Dooley said.

If the bill becomes law, current homeowners will not need to purchase a new detector. Only new and renovated dwellings with combustible gas will require the device. Dooley said many homeowners are not aware of these detectors. If the law is enacted, he expects people will choose to buy one.

The Norfolk tragedy happened at the Village at Rivers Edge condominium complex when a propane tank exploded, causing a fire. One construction worker was killed and three others were injured.

A resident in an adjacent unit and two firefighters were also injured.

An investigation determined that the propane tank had absorbed the odor, so workers could not smell the leak. The investigation also uncovered issues with the odor of propane sold in New England.

A propane gas leak also caused an explosion in a Franklin condominium in 2015, killing two people.

More recently, a propane leak led to a Rehoboth house explosion in August that injured three people. In New Hampshire, a propane tank explosion in September killed a painter working on a house under construction.

Natural gas leaks can also be dangerous.

In 2014, an explosion in Dorchester injured 12 people. A gas leak in Cambridge this summer led fire officials to evacuate a residential and commercial neighborhood. No explosions occurred.

In Massachusetts, 50.1 percent of households are heated by natural gas while 2.9 percent use bottled gas, including propane, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011-2015 American Community Survey estimates.

Coleman Bushnell, Norfolk’s fire chief, supports Dooley’s bill. He said a combustible gas detector could have prevented the 2010 tragedy.

“Clearly the amount of gas that was present within the basement of the unit under construction would have been readily detectable by even the most rudimentary type of combustible gas detectors,” Bushnell said.

Dooley said the developer at the Village at Rivers Edge had never heard of combustible gas detectors. His son was among the construction workers injured in the explosion. He later installed the devices in all units.

Since then the detectors have twice alerted residents to the accumulation of gas, Bushnell said. The fire department responded both times, and no explosion occurred.

Bushnell is more concerned with bottled gas than natural gas because, unlike utilities, the bottled gas industry is not regulated. Bushnell thinks combustible gas detectors should be included when the tank is installed.

On its website, the Propane Gas Association of New England recommends homeowners consider installing gas detectors.

Bushnell acknowledged that combustible gas devices are not perfect. As with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, false alarms can occur, causing homeowners angst.

“I think when you weigh that concern with potentially saving a life, it’s a small inconvenience to be borne by the public,” Bushnell said.

Bushnell commended Dooley for sponsoring the bill.

“I’m very hopeful that Representative Dooley’s legislation will meet muster in Boston,” Bushnell said.

Dooley finds satisfaction in sponsoring this bill.

“Very rarely do we get to propose a bill that helps public safety, saves lives and has no cost,” Dooley said.

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