Goodbye, Columbia Gas

Leonel Rondon, the 18-year-old killed in the Merrimack Valley gas explosions, can never be brought back, but other customers of Columbia Gas say they will rest more safely with the news that the company will no longer be doing business in Massachusetts.

The US Attorney’s office announced Wednesday that Columbia Gas of Massachusetts agreed to plead guilty to violating a national pipeline safety standard, which could have prevented the over-pressurization of its gas distribution system that resulted in the September 2018 explosions.

US Attorney Andrew Lelling accused the company of “a wholesale management failure” and “a pattern of flagrant indifference in the face of extreme risks to life and property,” according to the Boston Globe.

The gas explosions in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover killed Rondon, severely disabled one person, injured 22 people, caused a massive evacuation, and damaged 130 homes and businesses.

Under the terms of the plea agreement, Columbia Gas will pay a $53 million fine and be subject to a three-year monitoring period. During that time, NiSource – Columbia Gas’s parent company — agreed to try to sell the Massachusetts company, which would then stop all gas pipeline operations in the state. NiSource will forfeit any profits from the sale.

Wednesday evening, Eversource announced a $1.1 billion deal with Columbia Gas to purchase all of Columbia Gas’s assets, more than doubling Eversource’s natural gas customer base from 300,000 to 630,000. The deal must still be approved by state and federal authorities.

The Globe reported that, separately, a state judge on Thursday is set to approve a $143 million settlement that Columbia Gas reached with affected residents in a class action lawsuit. The company already agreed to pay more than $80 million to the three affected towns and reached an undisclosed settlement with Rondon’s family.

State politicians were not completely satisfied with the agreement.

US Sen. Elizabeth Warren said the guilty plea “puts other gas companies on notice that they will be prosecuted for prioritizing profits over safety.” But Warren said there continues to be “a glaring weakness” with the settlement. “This was a massive failure of the company’s safety culture — and somehow no individual executive is being held accountable,” she said.

US Sen. Ed Markey called it “a small justice” for Rondon and the affected communities that Columbia Gas will no longer operate here. But, he said, “This fine is a mere slap on the wrist, and will not do nearly enough to dissuade other massive billion-dollar energy companies from future negligence or from exploiting the same regulatory loophole.”

Warren, Markey, and Rep. Lori Trahan, who represents Lawrence, have introduced a bill in Congress named after Rondon that would enhance federal safety standards for gas pipeline work.

US Rep. Seth Moulton, who represents North Andover and parts of Andover, noted that it will take time for Columbia Gas to be sold. “Nobody I represent has confidence in this company’s ability to provide service safely,” Moulton said. “Peace of mind will not return until Columbia Gas/NiSource is out of business in the Merrimack Valley.”

State Sen. Barry Finegold, of Andover, told the Eagle-Tribune that he would have liked to see the money go to community residents affected by the gas explosions rather than to the federal government.

This is not the end of the road for Columbia Gas, which still faces an investigation by the state Department of Public Utilities. A DPU spokesman said the agency is continuing its investigation, and the administration “is committed to ensuring Columbia Gas of Massachusetts is held accountable for systemic failures in its gas distribution system.”

Lelling declined to say whether the DPU should have known about Columbia Gas’s problems before the explosion. The DPU has improved its safety processes in response to the incident.

In Lawrence, Mayor Daniel Rivera reiterated the sentiment he has been expressing since the explosions, according to the Eagle-Tribune: “It will be a great day in the Merrimack Valley and in the Commonwealth when Columbia Gas of Massachusetts no longer exists.”


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