NiSource taps veteran executive to oversee gas safety

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has tapped a veteran energy executive to oversee its natural gas safety operations, as the embattled utility seeks to restore public confidence following a series of gas leaks and disasters.

Nick Stavropoulos, the former president and chief operating officer of California’s Pacific Gas & Electric Co., has been brought out of retirement to take over as chief safety adviser for the company’s gas distribution system in Massachusetts, which includes 320,000 customers statewide and about 8,600 in the Merrimack Valley.

Stavropoulos, who has worked in the natural gas industry for more than 40 years, will work directly for Columbia’s parent company, NiSource, as a liaison with municipal and state leaders and regulators, among other responsibilities. He said the job will involve building on safety improvements that got underway after last year’s gas disaster.

“When it comes to safety, our work is never done,” Stavropoulos, who has moved into a home he owns in Weston, said in an interview Thursday. “We work in an industry where we transport a hazardous product under pressure through pipes that run past homes, schools and hospitals, and we take that responsibility seriously.”

Winning back trust

Columbia Gas and its parent company are struggling to repair strained relations with customers after last year’s gas fires and explosions that ripped through Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, killing a teen and destroying dozens of homes.

Gov. Charlie Baker recently ordered a moratorium on all non-emergency work by Columbia Gas following a gas leak in Lawrence last month that prompted evacuations, and state regulators have faulted the company for not having plans to deal with 2,220 old service lines abandoned during a hurried, systemwide pipeline upgrade.

NiSource CEO Joe Hamrock says the company faces myriad challenges winning back the public’s trust, and Stavropoulos is the man for the job.

“We know of no one more qualified,” he said. “He has the judgment, experience and a relentless focus on safety to help us through these challenging times.”

Mark Kempic will remain president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, Hamrock said.

Stavropoulos, a former National Grid executive, is no stranger to Massachusetts. He grew up in Cambridge and began his career as a rate analyst at the former Colonial Gas Company in Lowell in 1979. He climbed his way up the corporate ladder to president of the company’s successor, Key-Span New England, and later was COO of National Grid.

Stavropoulos was also president of KeySpan New England, a regional utility, when the company was blamed for a gas explosion that destroyed a Lexington home in 2005. An investigation determined a KeySpan crew working in the area accidentally connected a high-pressure gas main to a low-pressure system routing gas into homes.

At the time, Stavropoulos was credited by state and local officials for immediately accepting responsibility for the accident and taking corrective actions.

PG&E’s spotty record

In 2011, he was hired by PG&E to help reorganize and repair the company’s troubled natural gas operations following the deadly 2010 explosion of a gas pipeline beneath San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. He was promoted to president and COO in March 2017.

Stavropoulos retired from PG&E last year amid a state investigation into reports the utility falsified gas safety records, but he says that had nothing to do with his decision to leave the company.

The investigation, led by the California’s Public Utilities Commission, determined PG&E employees falsified records to mask how quickly the company responded to excavators’ requests to locate and mark gas pipelines, and that the utility did not provide enough qualified workers to help flag underground electric lines, among other allegations.

PG&E is also blamed for sparking a series of Northern California wildfires last year. but those incidents involve the company’ electric distribution system, not its gas lines.

Earlier this year, PG&E agreed to pay $65 million to the state and implement a series of system reforms to settle the investigation into its handling of gas records, according to the commission. Several PG&E leaders departed as part of “corrective actions” addressing issues raised by utilities regulators.

Stavropoulos said his decision to retire was for personal and family reasons. “It was time,” he said. “I actually stayed there two years longer than I had originally committed to.”

Still, the head of a San Francisco-based consumer watchdog group said Stavropoulos left PG&E under a cloud just as the investigation was getting underway.

“I’m stunned that a company would hire someone not just with a spotty track record, but a bad one,” said Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, a consumer watchdog group that has been critical of PG&E’s operations. “He is not someone that should be overseeing gas pipeline safety.”