Hearing on $143M disaster settlement Monday 

AMANDA SABGA/Staff photoAfter the gas disaster, work is done in downtown Andover.

SALEM, Mass. — A hearing is scheduled Monday afternoon on the $143 million proposed settlement for victims of the Sept. 13, 2018 gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley towns of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence. 

Judge James Lang is presiding over the consolidated cases against Columbia Gas. The hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. in courtroom H in Salem Superior Court. 

The proposed settlement, filed last month in superior court, could benefit roughly 175,000 residents and businesses. 

The proposal calls for six categories of lump-sum payouts, ranging from $50 for a "nominal" disruption to as much as $15,000 for a "major" disruption.

All residents, property owners and businesses in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover are eligible, even those not serviced by Columbia Gas, according to the proposal.

A group of local leaders, including Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, state Rep. Frank Moran, D-Lawrence, and state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, are opposing the terms of the settlement and submitted a letter to the editor to  The Eagle-Tribune on the matter.

The group pointed to a second gas leak Friday, Sept. 27, of this year that forced evacuations of some residents in the South Broadway area of Lawrence. 

They want residents subjected to both gas events to each receive $1,000, businesses involved with both events to get a $5,000 payment, and $20 million to improve "public safety infrastructure" in the three communities. 

"In light of these recent developments and a second gas-related incident, we believe that Columbia Gas should contribute more to the settlement to cover these costs, or that the total amount reserved for attorneys’ fees be reduced so that it can go toward fairly compensating residents and public safety infrastructure. We look forward to seeing improved settlement terms that reflect the lived reality of our constituents," the letter submitted to the newspaper later Friday states. 

The 2018 gas disaster was caused by over-pressurized gas lines. The recent issue was blamed on valve problems in a newly installed high-pressure line. 

Nearly $28 million — or about 20% of the total settlement — would go to the lawyers for their legal fees and expenses. Heffler Claims Group would review claims and distribute funds from the settlement which is "the result of extensive arm length's negotiations," according to court papers.

Lead attorneys are listed as Bailey & Glasser of Boston, Morgan & Morgan of Florida, and Grant and Eisenhofer of Delaware.

Columbia Gas and its parent company, NiSource, do not oppose the settlement proposal.

Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, was killed in the gas disaster, dozens were injured and damages are estimated at $1 billion.

More than a year later, recovery efforts are still underway.

If approved, people would be informed of the settlement process through community meetings, notices in print, television and radio, and social media posts, according to the proposed settlement. 

Those who filed class action suits "alleged the explosions were caused by gas leaks due to the over-pressurization of gas distribution lines owned, operated and maintained by Columbia Gas. This over-pressurization caused catastrophic failures in the distribution of lines, most of which were over 50 years old and known to be the most antiquated and prone to leaks of any gas distribution in the United States," according to a copy of the settlement proposal.

Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in the Merrimack Valley the day after the disaster and "residents could not return to their homes, for days, weeks, and in some cases, months."

Court papers note more than a dozen suits were filed against Columbia Gas in Essex County and Suffolk County superior courts after the disaster. The suits were all consolidated into what's known in legal terms as an "aggregate proceeding."

If approved, Heffler Claims Group would serve as settlement administrator, according to the paperwork.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill. 

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