LAWRENCE — Despite calls for their resignation from the state's congressional delegation, the presidents of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts and its parent company, NiSource Inc., refused to promise they would not raise rates on customers to soften the financial blow of the Sept. 13 gas disaster.
The explosions and fires caused by over-pressurized gas lines killed a teenager, injured more than two dozen others, damaged dozens of homes and cut off gas service to thousands of customers. More than 1,000 customers are still without gas service 2 1/2 months into the recovery effort.
U.S. Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Reps. Seth Moulton and Niki Tsongas grilled the chief executives during a U.S. Senate committee hearing held in a local middle school Monday morning. Markey, Warren and Moulton were particularly aggressive in their questioning of the presidents of the two companies, suggesting that the men step down from their leadership roles. They also questioned what they characterized as the companies' "woefully insufficient" preparation for such an emergency.
"We had to bring them here to make sure they were made accountable for the people of the Merrimack Valley, but you could see that they left as quickly as they could," Markey, D-Mass., told reporters. "You could see that they're trying their best to minimize responsibility here."
The hearing was held in Lawrence by the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to enable impacted residents to attend. It was the eighth field hearing the committee has held during this Congress of 138 total hearings. And residents obliged: The gymnasium at South Lawrence East Middle School held a crowd of hundreds of local officials and residents affected by the Sept. 13 disaster, who periodically applauded as the senators and representatives posed their questions. Among the residents were the parents and sister of Leonel Rondon, the 18-year-old Lawrence man killed in one of the gas explosions.
"The grief we feel is unbearable, but we know Leonel would want us to stay strong. We will stand with the community on his behalf," said his sister, Lucianny Rondon.
She continued through tears: "We hope there will be justice for him and the community." The family received a standing ovation.
Steve Bryant, president of Columbia Gas, and Joe Hamrock, president of NiSource, apologized and said they accepted responsibility for the failings of the companies. Both men also apologized directly to the Rondon family, who sat prominently in the front row, next to Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera.
"I will carry that in the heart for the rest of my life," Bryant said to the Rondons about the death.
In addition to recommending that Bryant and Hamrock relinquish their posts at the helm of Columbia Gas and NiSource, the delegates questioned the company culture that was allowed to flourish under their leadership, which Bryant and Hamrock insisted put safety first.
"You posted a notice at 9 p.m. that evening. Five hours after the two alarms were recorded at your facility (in Ohio)," Moulton, D-Salem, said, referencing the evening of Sept. 13. "That does not strike me as a culture of safety."
When asked directly, Bryant said he was aware of the company's practice of having engineers who were not licensed by the state sign off on plans like the one that went terribly wrong in Lawrence.
"The buck does stop with you," Markey said. "Your company gave too much power to an unqualified engineer with too little information."
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the disaster, also noted that Columbia Gas had, four years prior, ended the practice of sending qualified Columbia Gas employees to active work sites in the event of an accident. That employee was there to shut off the gas in the event a line was compromised.
Both Moulton and Tsongas, D-Lowell, asked Hamrock to pledge that the cost of the disaster — an estimated $800 million — will not be passed on to customers. Hamrock refused.
"I’m not in a position today to make such a commitment," he said. Tsongas told him she took "great exception" to his response.
Warren, D-Mass., speaking to reporters after the hearing, said it would take "vigilance" among federal regulators and governing bodies to ensure the cost of the disaster is not ultimately passed on to ratepayers.
During the questioning, Warren demanded to know Bryant's and Hamrock's annual compensation — $550,000 and $5 million, respectively — and if they would see financial losses as a result of the disaster. Both men said they had recommended that they not receive their incentive bonuses for the year.
Later, when asked about the executives' understanding of the magnitude of the disaster, Rivera said he did not think "anybody who makes $5 million understands the impact on people living with $36,000 per family."
When not drilling the decision-making, culture and actions of Columbia Gas and NiSource, the committee returned its attention to regulatory oversight of the utilities, a safeguard members said is lax across the nation. Markey lamented the "regulatory black hole" that allowed a critical error to be made on Sept. 13 and that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration had become a "lapdog" for the industry instead of the "watchdog" it was intended to be.
Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts Inc. and a professional with 45 years of experience in the industry, said "the biggest problem" is "a shift away from prescriptive" laws and regulations on pipeline safety and infrastructure "to what we call the more risk-based performance movements.''
"Performance gives a lot of wiggle room, and it's tough for a regulator to enforce," Kuprewicz said.
Markey also called for higher caps on fines for companies that cause disasters like the one that affected Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. He said the maximum that NiSource can be fined — $2 million — is equivalent to "a parking ticket" for the company.
"We are going to move so we put laws on the books that guarantee that there are real safety regulations, that all 50 states have to abide by," Markey said. "That is not the case right now. The pipeline safety agency is a captured agency of the industry it was created to regulate. That has resulted in tragedy for the people of the Merrimack Valley."
Residents are invited to submit their own testimony about the disaster to be included in the Congressional Record. Residents and small-business owners have two weeks to submit their testimony here: www.markey.senate.gov/merrimack-valley-gas-explosions-share-your-story.