- Associated Press - Monday, July 7, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) - A new state law would require Massachusetts utilities to pay close attention to natural gas leaks.

The law for the first time creates a uniform, three-tiered classification system for gas leaks. Those classified as Grade 1 leaks would be considered the most dangerous and gas companies would have to fix them immediately.

Gov. Deval Patrick held a ceremonial bill signing on Monday in Springfield, the site of a November 2012 natural gas explosion that leveled one building and damaged dozens of others. Eighteen people were hurt in the blast.

Investigators said the explosion was caused when a Columbia Gas employee accidentally punctured a gas line while probing for a leak. The city last year announced a $650,000 agreement with the company for property damage and other associated expenses.

While Grade 1 leaks would require immediate attention, leaks classified as Grade 2 under the new system would be deemed to pose a future hazard and must be repaired within one year, while Grade 3 leaks - those judged to be the least risky - must nonetheless continue to be monitored.

Priority would be given, however, to any gas leak found within a school zone.

“This legislation will ensure public safety, protect the environment and reduce the cost of utilities for the citizens of the Commonwealth,” Patrick said in a statement.

Utilities would be required to report the location and scheduled repair date of all classified gas leaks. The law would also encourage gas companies to propose plans for upgrading aging pipelines and would require that companies be notified in advance of any public construction project that might impact natural gas infrastructure.

The law was expected to add a couple of dollars to the average homeowner’s gas bill, but proponents said it was also expected to save tens of millions of dollars in the long run by fixing thousands of leaks.

Also Monday, Patrick made a stop at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield to tout $14 million in recent state grants for nonprofit arts and cultural facilities. The administration said the grants to the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund would support 81 projects in the state.

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