BOSTON -- The Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a bill that establishes natural gas leak classification standards, requiring gas companies to repair the most dangerous leaks immediately, and aligns civil penalties for pipeline facility and gas transportation safety violations with federal law, Senator Jennifer L. Flanagan (D-Leominster) announced.

"This important legislation will ensure that aging infrastructure is properly inspected and maintained to avoid unsafe conditions throughout the Commonwealth," stated Senator Flanagan. "Although we don't see our gas infrastructure because it's underground, we have to remain vigilant to ensure public safety."

"Natural gas leaks remain public health and safety concerns that affect communities all across the Commonwealth," Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) said. "This bill takes important steps to ensure that these leaks are classified, prioritized and repaired accordingly, as well as encourage gas companies to create plans to proactively repair aging infrastructure and increase access to natural gas."

"Reducing gas leaks is good for the Commonwealth's overall public safety, environment and economy," said Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield), Chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee. "Far too much gas is wasted every year, raising the costs of electricity and heating for consumers while harming our communities. This bill takes common sense steps to reduce pollution, address consumer costs, and protect our neighbors."

"This bill will address both public safety and the environmental impact of gas leaks," said Senator Stephen M. Brewer (D-Barre), Chair of Senate Ways and Means. "It requires gas companies to immediately fix any hazardous gas leaks, and facilitates improvements to worker safety precautions, all while complying with greenhouse gas emission reduction targets."

The bill identifies a three-tiered classification system to identify natural gas leaks in the Commonwealth, ranging from a Grade 1 hazardous leak that requires immediate repair to a Grade 3 non-hazardous leak that must be reevaluated during the next scheduled survey or within one year. Grade 2 leaks represent a probable future hazard and must be repaired within one year.

In addition, gas leaks that are identified within a school zone must be prioritized under this bill and requires the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) to authorize the use of explosives within 500 yards of a natural gas pipeline.

Each gas company is also required to report the locations, classification date and repair schedule of all leaks and include details on the reclassification of previously identified leaks.

To ensure the safety of each community, gas companies must be notified of any significant projects for public ways that exposes natural gas infrastructure and the project area must be surveyed for the presence of gas leaks.

If a gas company or public safety official determines that a gas leak caused an explosion, DPU is required to issue findings on if further investigation is necessary to determine the cause of the explosion.

The bill allows gas companies to propose plans to address aging or leaking natural gas infrastructure with priority given to the most immediate needs. Gas companies are also authorized to create programs to increase natural gas service for new customers with the goal of assisting low-income customers currently eligible for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and DPU is required to exempt LIHEAP program participants from any surcharges that result from the expansion of natural gas service.

In addition, DPU will determine if winter surveillance and cast iron gas pipeline patrol is necessary and to what standards and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security will issue a report on the adequacy of utility transformer vault safety standards.

The Senate and House will now produce a compromise bill for final passage and consideration of the governor.