Utility to pay $53M for blasts that damaged homes, killed 1
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.
Fire investigators pause while searching the debris at a home which exploded following a gas line failure in Lawrence, Mass on Sept. 21, 2018.