LAWRENCE — Attorney General Maura Healey on Thursday made her third visit to the city since the natural gas explosions and fires that rocked the region Sept. 13 to repeat advice that has become familiar by now: anyone impacted by the disaster should file a claim with Columbia Gas while being wary of lawyers and contractors – or alleged lawyers and contractors — seeking their business.
“I want to make sure that nobody gets ripped off,” Healey told about 200 residents and business people who came to a Lawrence High School lecture hall for her advice about how to file claims with Columbia, protect their rights and guard against fraud. “I don't want to see people scammed or taken advantage, especially people who have already suffered too much.”
Healey also had warnings for Columbia Gas. Earlier in the day, she issued a statement accusing the company of leaving its customers “in the dark” about the recovery and demanding its executives meet with her next week to explain their effort to process claims, restore service and provide alternate energy sources to customers asking for it, including by paying the costs of switching them to electricity if they request it. Healey has directed Columbia and its Indiana parent company, NiSource, to preserve documents related to the disaster so they can be reviewed by federal and state investigators looking into the causes of the disaster and the response.
“We're going to be getting to the bottom of this,” Healey said at Thursday's meeting at the high school.
One person was killed, about 80 buildings in South Lawrence, North Andover and Andover were damaged or destroyed and thousands of people were evacuated for three days following the disaster, which began at about 4 p.m. Sept. 13 when high-pressure natural gas was routed to low-pressure lines.
Since then, Columbia has received thousands of claims from residents and business owners at centers it opened to receive the claims in the three municipalities. Gov. Charlie Baker last week named Joe Albanese, a former Navy captain who now owns a construction company, to coordinate the effort to rebuild or repair 49 miles of Columbia's gas lines by Nov. 19. That effort got underway last week.
Healey was joined by a battery of lawyers on her staff who specialize in the range legal issues raised by the gas disaster, and an immigration lawyer who said undocumented immigrants affected by the disaster should not be afraid to file claims.
“Our primary message is that you should file a claim with Columbia even if you have your own (homeowner's or renter's insurance) policies,” Assistant Attorney General Arwen Thoman told the audience. She urged people to keep receipts and to document expenses they've incurred over the last few weeks, including for meals and hotel stays, so that they could be submitted to Columbia for reimbursement.
“Ask questions and do your homework,” Assistant Attorney General Jon Miller urged anyone approached by lawyers and contractors seeking to sign them up for lawsuits against Columbia or to repair damage to their homes or businesses. “We've started to hear concerns from the community about people who said they're lawyers but who really aren't. These are scammers looking to steal money from homeowners or renters dealing with the situation right now because they know people are vulnerable and want help.”
Before hiring anyone, Miller urged people check the lists of licensed lawyers and contractors on websites maintained by the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers and the state's Office of Consumer Affairs. People should ask for references, Miller said, and warned them against signing contracts they don't understand, paying large sums of money up front or allowing themselves to be pressured.
Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice in Boston, said there are ways to protect the identity of undocumented immigrants if they wish to sue Columbia. He did not elaborate.
“When the explosions happened, the first thing that came to my mind was that we need to make sure that our rights as residents of Lawrence and surrounding communities are respected and protected,” Espinoza-Madrigal said. “That applies to all of us, regardless of what Zip Code you live in, regardless of what is your race, your background, the language that you speak or your immigration status.”
Several residents and business owners had questions. Most were fielded by Mayor Daniel Rivera, who hosted the event with City Councilor Pavel Payano and state Rep. Juana Matias, a Lawrence Democrat.
Lawrence resident Mark Wood asked about the threat that water pipes in his home would burst if gas service is not restored and his home can't be heated before the onset of freezing temperatures.
Rivera said that kind of emergency is likely down the road and could be dealt with by turning off water to buildings and moving residents to alternate housing.
“My biggest concern is, will I lose my job,” said Audalina Martin, who enrolls 10 children in the day care center she operates at her home on Newton Street in Lawrence.
Rivera responded that Columbia will be responsible for lost income suffered during the disaster. He said the state Division of Unemployment Insurance also will pay benefits to people who lose income.
Homayoun Maali, who already has filed a claim against Columbia, asked Healey why she has not filed a complaint against the company. Healey promised that day is coming.
“This was a terrible thing that happened,” Healey said. “There's going to be a ton of investigations and litigation. I'm going to do my job representing your interests, making sure we're protecting people and making sure we're holding accountable those who need to be held accountable. We've got a federal investigation going. We have an investigation by the state Department of Public Utilities ongoing. I've already done the work we need to do to preserve our rights to bring any action – civil, criminal, you name it – against anybody.
“I was on Chickering Road,” Healey added, referring to the home on the street where 18-year-old Leonel Rondon was crushed to death when a brick chimney toppled onto his car after he pulled into the driveway of a home that exploded and collapsed moments later. “It's unbelievable. I am so sorry. Something went terribly wrong and there will be people and entities held accountable.”
Judy Rakowsky, a spokeswoman for Columbia, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Anyone seeking advice about legal representation, insurance, home contractors and other issues involving the gas disaster should call state Attorney General Maura Healey at this number.