Gas Company Fined Record $53 Million Over Explosions and Death in Massachusetts

February 27, 2020 Updated: February 27, 2020

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts must pay the highest criminal fine—$53 million—ever imposed on any utility in the United States for breaking the Pipeline Safety Act. The company pleaded guilty to damaging several houses and killing one person as a result of natural gas explosions in Massachusetts, according to officials on Feb. 26.

The gas explosion affected three communities in the Merrimack Valley, north of Boston, in September 2018, and the company accepted to pay the fine to settle a federal investigation into the incident.

The FBI Agent Joseph Bonavolonta said the incident is a serious reminder that violation of public safety has a high cost and public safety should be set as the top priority rather than profit.

The utility company said in a statement to the Associated Press that it undertakes complete responsibility for the blasts which caused harm to the communities.

The company also said that the resolution with the U.S. Attorney’s Office was significant in terms of addressing the effect of the disaster. In addition, the utility emphasized the prioritization of safety enhancement, obtaining the trust of customers, and ensuring the delivery of quality service.

The company’s parent, Merrillville, Indiana-based NiSource Inc., agreed to bring an end to any gas distribution or pipeline in Massachusetts and sell the company. Consequently, all profits of the sale of the company will be sent to the federal government of Massachusetts.

The communities did not want the Columbia Gas company to operate anymore in this area and the disaster was so huge that it made it hard for residents of the nearby towns to trust the company to keep moving forward, Attorney Andrew Lelling told reporters. He added that the conclusion of the resolution primarily achieved that goal.

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Doug Sheff (R), an attorney for the family of Leonel Rondon, pictured (L) speaks during a news conference, in Boston, on Oct. 25, 2018. (Steven Senne/AP Photo/File)

Outrage seized the communities of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover in the face of the explosions when thousands of homes and businesses had to deal with the lack of gas services in the coldest season for weeks or even in some cases for months. Public authorities and the people of the communities attacked the company for its inadequate response and asked the officials to take full responsibility.

The blasts damaged and destroyed dozens of homes and hurt around two dozen people. An-18-year-old resident, Leonel Rondon, died when a chimney fell down on his vehicle just hours after he had obtained his driver’s license.

A series of class action lawsuits have been filed, claiming an amount of $143 million. The resolution awaits final approval from a court.

Overpressurized gas lines are said to be the determining causes of the explosions, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB said when the company replaced old cast-iron pipes in Lawrence, it did not account for important pressure sensors which caused the overpressurized gas to overflow the neighborhood’s distribution system at uncontrolled levels.

The Columbia Gas company broke the minimum safety standards both for starting up and stopping the operation of gas lines through a “pattern of flagrant indifference,” Lelling said, based on the findings of federal investigators.

The company apparently was aware that its neglect to account properly for control lines in construction projects could lead to a tragedy, as an internal circulated notice revealed in 2015, but still acted irresponsibly in order to increase net income, sabotaging public safety, authorities said.

Bonavolonta also added that Columbia Gas recruited workers who were not well-trained and experienced. The company also did not keep reliable records of control lines simply because it was too costly and didn’t inform the authorities of the city of Lawrence about construction projects. The company was unable to provide NTSB investigators with a full list of its customers shortly after the explosion erupted.

“This disaster was caused by a whole management failure at Columbia Gas,” Lelling said.

The company will be monitored by an independent agency until it is sold, to make sure that it is not violating state and federal laws, according to Lelling.

As a result of this tragedy, federal authorities called in September for every state to ensure that all natural gas projects are examined and licensed by a professional engineer.

Natural gas companies were also recommended by NTSB to be required to install additional protections on low-pressure systems like the one involved in the explosions.