A Salem Superior Court judge will be asked next month to approve a $143 million settlement for victims of the Sept. 13, 2018 gas disaster in the Merrimack Valley towns of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence. 

Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, was killed, dozens injured and damage estimated at $1 billion after over-pressurized gas lines resulted in explosions and fires around the region.

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

Roughly 175,000 residents and business owners would benefit from the settlement, according to a proposal filed Wednesday in Salem Superior Court. 

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.

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, does not oppose the settlement proposal. 

'Fulfilling commitments'

"We welcome the ongoing steps to gain court approval of the class action settlement and look forward to the upcoming hearing," Columbia Gas/NiSource spokesman Dean Lieberman said in a statement.

"The company continues to fulfill its commitments to affected residents and businesses, and the court approval process is an important element of that," he said. 

Lieberman said the $1 billion the company dedicated to disaster recovery includes:

* $143 million as part of this class action settlement;

* Restoration work conducted in homes and businesses, including sourcing and installing nearly 18,500 new appliances and pieces of equipment (boilers, furnaces, ranges, and dryers);

* Temporary housing for affected residents, including sourcing more than 4,000 hotel rooms, more than 160 one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments and more than 200 RVs. At its peak, more than 2,200 families, totaling more than 8,000 individuals, utilized temporary housing, Lieberman said; 

* More than $100 million in funds paid to residents and businesses through the Columbia Gas-managed claims process thus far;

* A confidential settlement in April with the Figueroa family of Lawrence, whose home at 35 Chickering St. exploded Sept. 13, 2018. Rondon was killed by a chimney that fell on his car during the explosion. Several member of the Figueroa family were also injured; 

* A confidential settlement in July with Rondon's family; 

* And an announcement in May that the three affected municipalities — Andover, Lawrence, and North Andover — agreed to an $80 million settlement covering reimbursement of expenses and claims by the municipalities and curb-to-curb repairs of roadways.

People would be informed of the settlement process through community meetings, notices in print, television and radio, and social media posts.

'Catastrophic failures'

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. 

Federal regulators with the National Transportation Safety Board held a meeting in Washington, D.C. about the disaster and its investigation Tuesday. 

NTSB said Columbia Gas was not prepared to handle such a disaster and had no maps of the gas system available for first responders that day, despite overseeing the system for 100 years. 

Additionally, the NTSB reported, company officials were difficult to reach as the disaster was occurring and for hours afterward.

The NTSB also said plans to upgrade the cast-iron gas line system did not include upgrades to “gas sensing lines.”

Gas company representatives, after the meeting, said their understanding of what happened during the gas disaster "aligns" with the NTSB findings. 

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said “results were not simply unacceptable. For a whole region, they were catastrophic.”

Bruce Landsberg, NTSB vice chairman, echoed similar sentiments and said, “It took a tragic situation here to wake up NiSource.”

Three firefighters and 19 civilians were hurt, 50,000 people were forced to evacuate and the severity of the damage depended on the age of appliances people had. Five homes were destroyed and 131 structures damaged, according to NTSB findings. 

The night of the disaster, 184 fire departments from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine responded to the Merrimack Valley bringing 167 fire engines, 65 ladder trucks and 54 ambulances. One thousand police officers came to the area.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. 

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill. 









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