SALEM, Mass. — The Sept. 13, 2018 gas disaster put Tania Gonzalez and her boyfriend out their home until mid-December.
And then once back in their South Lawrence neighborhood, issues remained with gas service and reimbursement for their losses from Columbia Gas, the natural gas provider.
"We are still crippled by this. What happened was a cataclysmic event," said Gonzalez, 43.
In a courtroom with two dozen attorneys present, Gonzalez stood and addressed Judge James Lang late Monday afternoon saying she doesn't believe a proposed $143 million settlement for gas disaster victims is fair to those who lived through the ordeal and still suffering from material loss and mental anguish.
The disaster, caused by overpressurization of gas lines, effected residents and businesses in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence. Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, was killed, dozens were injured and damages estimated at $1 billion.
"This is not just 'my' story. This is 'our' story...The gross negligence is off the Richter scale," said Gonzalez, of Columbia Gas.
Gonzalez said the disaster "could have been prevented and it should have."
She told Lang attorneys are making the biggest gains in the settlement while the working class "became a side note." The "depravity and poverty" of Lawrence is being exploited. She said she accrued $15,000 in expenses during the disaster which remains unpaid.
Gonzalez received applause from some sitting in courtroom gallery after she addressed Lang.
Lang took the proposed settlement, which could benefit roughly 175,000 residents and businesses, under advisement after hearing from attorneys representing those who sued, Columbia Gas and Gonzalez, the lone person who spoke in objection, in court Monday afternoon.
Lead attorney John Roddy, of the Boston firm Bailey and Glasser, said he's been involved with 100 class action lawsuits in his 40-year career.
The settlement 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.
If the settlement is approved, people would be informed of the process through community meetings, notices in print, television and radio, and social media posts, according to the proposed settlement.
Lang was also given a copy of a letter to the editor of the The Eagle-Tribune a group of local leaders submitted opposing the terms of the settlement.
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 said 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, according to the letter, which ran Sunday, by the leaders who included Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, state Rep. Frank Moran, D-Lawrence, and state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover.
Finegold attended the hearing Monday.
But attorney Leo Boyle, who represents gas disaster victims, said they were not hired to represent governmental entities and have "no legal basis" for their request.
Boyle said the Sept. 27 gas issue has nothing to do with the Sept. 13, 2018 event and the "settlement we crafted."
Also, he noted, Columbia Gas previously paid the three communities a combined $80 million.
Columbia Gas and its parent company, NiSource, do not oppose the settlement proposal.
“As we have said, we view the $143 million settlement as an important step forward as we continue to fulfill our commitments to affected residents and businesses," said Dean Lieberman, a Columbia Gas spokesperson.
“This settlement was the product of good faith negotiations between the company and the plaintiffs’ attorneys, who also voiced support for the settlement today. We were pleased to agree to it. We hope it is approved swiftly by the court," he said.
In court and in a statement released Monday evening, Columbia Gas representatives also specified other payments and reimbursements made since the disaster occurred. They include:
- Restoration work conducted in homes and businesses, including sourcing and installing nearly 18,500 new appliances and pieces of equipment (i.e. boilers, furnaces, ranges, and dryers).
- Temporary housing needs 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.$170 million paid to residents and businesses through the Columbia Gas-managed claims process thus far.
- Confidential settlements with the Figueroa family, Lawrence, whose 35 Chickering St. home exploded, which had several individuals injured as a result of the incident, and the family of Leonel Rondon, the sole fatality in the gas disaster.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.