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With winter deadlines looming, National Grid lockout taking toll on development

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 10/6/2018 By Jon Chesto
a group of people holding a sign: National Grid forced out some 1,250 union workers in June amid a contract dispute. © Charles Krupa/Associated Press National Grid forced out some 1,250 union workers in June amid a contract dispute.

Like Columbia Gas, National Grid is running out of time.

Columbia, of course, wants to fix its explosion-compromised system in the Lawrence area before winter sets in.

But National Grid also faces tough November deadlines, with a much bigger local footprint than Columbia — 116 cities and towns in the state rely on National Grid for gas service.

Of those communities, 85 are affected by a lockout that halted most routine gas hookups after the company forced out some 1,250 union workers in June amid a contract dispute. Winter moratoriums for gas work loom next month in the vast majority of those places, spokeswoman Christine Milligan says. That means many projects that are nearing completion could grind to a halt. National Grid, she says, is instead focusing on emergencies.

Milligan says the company has tried to be upfront about the delays. In recent weeks, the utility has been letting potential customers know that with time running out, it will be less likely to install new service this year. She says the moratoriums on utility work usually extend from November until April. In Boston, for example, excavation work can continue in the winter, but only if a “true hardship” can be proven to city officials.

The wait for many people could drag out until next summer, maybe even to the fall.

David Begelfer, CEO of real estate group NAIOP Massachusetts, says office developers are getting increasingly concerned as winter approaches. The National Grid backlog is so long, he’s been told, that many hookups might take a year — and that’s if the union workers come back soon. This lockout is a big deal for developers that are about to turn over their projects. But it also affects earlier-stage construction: Begelfer says no gas heat makes it tough to run sprinkler systems as a fail-safe during the colder months.

The impact is being felt far and wide: a Winthrop resident said he has been waiting for gas service to move forward on a residential project, and the Boston nonprofit ABCD said it is waiting for gas service to a Head Start facility in Everett.

Politicians are starting to pay attention. The state Department of Public Utilities sent a letter to National Grid last week, asking for detailed data about the lockout’s impact. Governor Charlie Baker grumbled about it Monday to reporters, saying he runs into people all the time whose projects can’t be finished. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo sent a letter to Baker’s budget office on Tuesday, asking for info about the lockout’s economic implications; while his letter seemed to focus on the repercussions from the sidelining of 1,250 blue-collar workers, a spokeswoman says House members are also concerned about the broader impact.

Columbia Gas is racing to get service to 8,000-plus customers by Nov. 19, a desperate deadline with cold weather approaching. But they’re not the only ones waiting anxiously to finally turn on the gas.

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