Util­ity to pay $53M for blasts that dam­aged homes, killed 1

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - NEWS - By Alanna Durkin Richer

BOS­TON >> A util­ity com­pany will pay the largest crim­i­nal fine ever im­posed for break­ing a fed­eral pipe­line safety law — $53 mil­lion — and plead guilty to caus­ing a se­ries of nat­u­ral gas ex­plo­sions in Mas­sachusetts that killed one per­son and dam­aged dozens of homes, fed­eral of­fi­cials said Wed­nes­day.

Columbia Gas of Mas­sachusetts has agreed to plead guilty to vi­o­lat­ing the Pipe­line Safety Act and pay the fine to re­solve a fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the ex­plo­sions that rocked three com­mu­ni­ties in the Mer­ri­mack Val­ley, north of Bos­ton, in Septem­ber 2018.

“To­day’s set­tle­ment is a sober­ing re­minder that if you de­cide to put prof­its be­fore pub­lic safety, you will pay the con­se­quences,” FBI Agent Joseph Bon­avolonta said.

The com­pany said in an emailed state­ment that it takes full re­spon­si­bil­ity for the dis­as­ter.

“To­day’s res­o­lu­tion with the U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice is an im­por­tant part of ad­dress­ing the im­pact,” the com­pany wrote. “Our fo­cus re­mains on en­hanc­ing safety, re­gain­ing the trust of our cus­tomers and en­sur­ing that qual­ity ser­vice is de­liv­ered.”

The com­pany’s par­ent, Mer­ril­lville, In­di­ana-based NiSource Inc., has also agreed to try to sell the com­pany and cease any gas pipe­line and dis­tri­bu­tion ac­tiv­i­ties in Mas­sachusetts, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments. Any profit from the sale of Columbia Gas of Mas­sachusetts will be handed over to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

“We knew that one of the things those com­mu­ni­ties wanted was for Columbia Gas to sim­ply go away,” U.S. At­tor­ney An­drew Lelling told re­porters. “The tragedy was to such an ex­tent that it would be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for the pop­u­la­tions in those towns to trust this com­pany go­ing for­ward, so that was one of our pri­or­i­ties when we struck this deal,” he said.

The ex­plo­sions and fires out­raged the com­mu­ni­ties of Lawrence, An­dover and North An­dover, where thou­sands of homes and busi­nesses went with­out gas ser­vice for weeks, and months in some cases, dur­ing the win­ter. Res­i­dents and pub­lic of­fi­cials lashed out at the com­pany for not ad­e­quately re­spond­ing and called for of­fi­cials to be held ac­count­able.

Leonel Ron­don, 18, died when a chim­ney col­lapsed on his ve­hi­cle in the driveway of a friend’s home — hours af­ter he had got­ten his driver’s li­cense. About two dozen oth­ers were in­jured, and dozens of build­ings were dam­aged or de­stroyed.

A se­ries of class ac­tion law­suits stem­ming from the ex­plo­sions has set­tled for $143 mil­lion. The set­tle­ment awaits fi­nal ap­proval from a judge.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera praised the plea deal, say­ing it will be a “great day” when Columbia Gas no longer ex­ists.

“This agree­ment will bring some much needed so­lace to those af­fected,” he told re­porters.

CHARLES KRUPA — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

Fire in­ves­ti­ga­tors pause while search­ing the de­bris at a home which ex­ploded fol­low­ing a gas line fail­ure in Lawrence, Mass on Sept. 21, 2018.

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