A huge win for the residents of Merrimack Valley occurred through a plea agreement announced in February involving one of the state’s leading energy companies. Colombia Gas of Massachusetts was ordered to pay a $53 million criminal fine for violating the Pipeline Safety Act, causing a series of natural gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley including Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover in 2018. After a long wait, residents harmed by the explosions were finally able to hold the utility accountable for its actions.
The explosion’s killed 18-year-old Leonel Rondon when a chimney collapsed on his car in a friend’s driveway. 2 dozen more were injured requiring hospital care including two firefighters. More than 100 homes caught on fire and over 8,000 people were displaced.
$53 million is the largest fine ever imposed for a violation of the Pipeline Safety Act and is over two times the profits earned by the state’s Gas System Enhancement Plan program between 2015 and 2018. The full payment is due by July 23.
The company took full responsibility for the explosions and plead guilty to a federal felony. Its parent company, NiSource Inc., was ordered to sell off its subsidiary. It reached an agreement with Eversource in mere hours to sell the company for $1.1 billion. NiSource agreed to forfeit any profit it earned from the sale and implement safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board. The plea agreement also called for a three-year probation during which the company will be closely monitored for compliance with federal and state safety regulations. The probationary period will end when the sale is complete.
The deal still requires approval of the State Department of Utilities and the U.S. Department of Justice. The Department of Utilities has since opened a separate investigation and could eventually impose its own multi-million-dollar penalty on Columbia Gas.
The cause of the accident was determined to be over-pressurized gas lines, improper monitoring of pressure sensors, and old piping on the company’s South Union Project in South Lawrence. As a result, high pressure gas flooded the neighborhoods and caused multiple explosions.
The company knew of the disastrous potential of these gas lines evidenced by an internal memo dating back to 2015. The memo indicated that executives knew of failure to monitor gas lines, saying over-pressurization could lead to a “catastrophic event.” Federal authorities posit that Columbia Gas exhibited careless disregard for the community resulting in cutting corners and leading to this disaster.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera hopes the money can be used to help families in the affected communities. “It is clear, now more than ever, that the people of Lawrence and North Andover would have more use for this money than the federal government,” Rivera said. Most of the money is set to go to the Justice Department’s Crime Victims Fund, providing support to victims of many crimes across the country. Continue reading