Rivera: Columbia Gas should be disbanded

Moulton says utility president should step down


Federal lawmakers who gathered in Lawrence Monday called for top executives at Columbia Gas and its parent company to leave their jobs in the wake of the Sept. 13 gas fires and explosions in the Merrimack Valley, and Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera went a step further, asking that the utility be disbanded.

“I’m not sure how you do it — revoke their licenses, make them sell their business to someone else — it doesn’t matter how you do it, but after they have met their financial obligations not only to the individuals and the businesses and to the municipalities, Columbia Gas should cease to exist,” Rivera said at a US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation field hearing at a Lawrence middle school. “No second chances. Like Leonel Rondon’s life was taken and multiple homes no longer exist, and our lives, livelihood, and our peace have forever been altered, so should Columbia Gas no longer exist.”

Ten weeks after the overpressurization incident that killed one person, displaced thousands, and damaged homes and businesses throughout Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, lawmakers grilled NiSource President and CEO Joe Hamrock and Columbia Gas Massachusetts President Steve Bryant on their company culture, safety procedures, communication practices, and ongoing restoration efforts.

Committee members Sen. Ed Markey and Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire were joined for the hearing by Sen. Elizaeth Warren, U.S. Reps. Niki Tsongas and Seth Moulton, and representative-elect Lori Trahan, who will succeed Tsongas in January.

“We’re going to be here with the people of  the Merrimack Valley to make sure that your company is made accountable, to make sure that there is a reckoning which NiSource and Columbia Gas has to suffer as a consequence of your negligence, of your taking the lowest common denominator as your standard of safety,” Markey told the executives. “The people in this room, they paid the price for that lowest common denominator. Their families paid the price, and we’re going to make sure that this safety system is overhauled so that a real safety system is put in place, not just for Merrimack Valley but for the whole country.”

As of Monday morning, Columbia Gas said it had restored gas service to 6,093 residential meters across the three communities, or 83 percent of the approximately 7,400 that had been shut off, and 631 of 685 business meters. Columbia Gas has paid $64.7 million in claims associated with the disaster, and 1,178 families are currently residing in temporary housing.

Under questioning by Markey, Hamrock guaranteed that families affected by the fires and explosion will be made completely financially whole.

After originally announcing a Nov. 19 deadline for families and companies to have their heat and hot water back, Columbia Gas pushed it out to between Dec. 2 and Dec. 16. Hamrock said Monday the project is on track for full restoration “in the early part” of that range.

“We are working around the clock to make things better. I want to tell you all personally that I am sorry, and that I also know that an apology is simply not enough,” Hamrock said. “We’re going to get everyone back in their homes and businesses. We know it’s too early to ask any of you to trust us, but we are committed to restoring these communities.”

Hamrock said he takes responsibility for the tragedy as CEO, and is motivated to ensure nothing like it ever happens again. Markey, in response, said he was not sure Hamrock should be allowed to continue in his role.

Moulton, who represents Andover and North Andover, asked Bryant if he planned to resign. Bryant said he did not, and that his focus would be on restoring service to customers.

“Based on your response that evening, when it took five hours to notify your customers that there was a problem, it’s hard for me to imagine that you’re the best person to take responsibility of this company, and I suggest you resign,” Moulton said, to applause.

Moulton asked Hamrock what he expected NiSource’s profit margin to be over the next three years, and if he expected the next quarterly report to show a profit. Hamrock said it was “too early to know” and that the company had dispatched every available resource to respond to the disaster “without regard for the profit margin.”

The estimated total cost of the tragedy “looks like $800 million,” Hamrock said.

“If you took responsibility for this, you would have clarity because you would say right now that you would cover the $800 million and you would not see profit at your company,” Moulton said.

Tsongas asked Hamrock to “make a commitment that the costs you have incurred will not be passed along to ratepayers.”

“I’m not in a position today to make such a commitment,” Hamrock said. “We’ve not spent any time focusing on that question.”

Tsongas, who represents Lawrence, said she took “great exception to that statement.”

Hamrock told Warren his compensation is “in the range of $5 million,” and Bryant said he earned approximately $550,000 last year. She asked if their pay had been reduced after the disaster.

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Katie Lannan

State House News Service
Groans were audible from the audience after Hamrock said he recommended to the NiSource board that his bonus be withheld. Bryant said a “significant portion” of his pay is incentive that he does not think should be paid this year and will not accept if it is offered.

“The people in this room have been injured,” Warren said. “You have not.”