Massachusetts Gas Company to Plead Guilty After Fatal Explosion

Massachusetts Gas Company to Plead Guilty After Fatal Explosion

Almost 18 months after a series of explosions in northeastern Massachusetts in 2018, a gas company has agreed to plead guilty to violating federal pipeline safety laws, pay a $53 million fine and sell its business in the state, the authorities said Wednesday.

The company, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts — which supplied gas to the Merrimack Valley towns of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover — failed to stop the over-pressurization of a gas distribution system, leading to a number of fires and explosions on Sept. 13, 2018, prosecutors said. One person was killed and 22 were injured. Thousands were forced to evacuate their homes.

As part of the plea agreement, NiSource, the parent company of Columbia Gas, will “undertake their best reasonable best efforts” to sell Columbia Gas of Massachusetts and end all gas pipeline operations in the state, prosecutors said. The penalty was the largest criminal fine imposed under the federal Pipeline Safety Act, they said.

“When we were done with the investigation, what was very clear was that the company as a whole had simply failed to do what it was supposed to do to maintain the public safety, and had in fact acted with what we call flagrant disregard for the public safety,” Andrew E. Lelling, the United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said at a news conference on Wednesday.

He added that the federal authorities had no plans to criminally prosecute anyone. “We found that no one individual’s conduct rose to the level of warranting a federal prosecution of that person,” he said.

Columbia Gas said in a statement on Wednesday that it took “full responsibility for the tragic events of September 13, 2018.”

“Our focus remains on enhancing safety, regaining the trust of our customers and ensuring that quality service is delivered,” the company said.

NiSource said the agreement was “an important step in addressing the tragic events of September 13, 2018, and our ongoing focus on enhancing safety and delivering quality service to our customers.”

The series of explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover came suddenly on an afternoon when some residents said they had smelled gas in their homes.

The aftermath was chaotic. Emergency shelters opened as people fled their homes and navigated dark, smoky streets. Firefighters found themselves moving from block to block to put out fire after fire. Leonel Rondon, 18, was killed when a chimney fell onto his car in the driveway of a home in Lawrence, the authorities said.

Reports of gas leaks in the area continued for days, and thousands of people were without electricity.

Subsequent investigations found that before the accident, a crew contracted by Columbia Gas had been working to upgrade the natural gas distribution system in Lawrence. The company had approved the plan to replace old cast-iron pipes, which had sensors to monitor pressure. But disconnecting the old system disabled the gauges, and the flow of high-pressure gas into the system — without an accurate reading of the pressure — caused the explosions.

In May, about eight months after the explosions, Columbia Gas announced a settlement with the municipalities: $80 million to cover costs associated with infrastructure repair and other expenses. That settlement was for the municipalities and separate from any individual claims involving injuries or personal losses.

In October, a report from the National Transportation Safety Board said that “the probable cause of the overpressurization of the natural gas distribution system and the resulting fires and explosions was Columbia Gas of Massachusetts’ weak engineering management.”

According to the charges filed against Columbia Gas, the company “recklessly disregarded a known safety risk” and had known at least as early as 2015 that “the failure to properly account for control lines in construction projects” could lead to a “‘catastrophic event,’ including fires and explosions.”

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