BOSTON — With its president accepting full responsibility, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts was formally sentenced in federal court Tuesday for causing a series of natural gas fires and explosions that ripped through the Merrimack Valley on Sept. 13, 2018.
U.S. District Court Judge Dennis Saylor ordered the company to pay a $53 million fine and placed it on three years of probation, a plea that was previously agreed upon.
It’s the largest criminal fine ever imposed under the pipeline safety law.
Federal officials blame the company for causing the disaster that killed a Lawrence teenager, injured dozens and damaged more than 130 homes in Andover, North Andover and south Lawrence. Thousands of residents and businesses in the three communities were left without natural gas for heat and hot water, for several months in some cases.
Columbia Gas pleaded guilty to the federal charges in February. The guilty plea followed a settlement between Columbia Gas and its parent company, NiSource, with U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling.
“We expect utility companies operating in our communities to do so safely and responsibly,” said Lelling.
“Instead Columbia Gas acted with reckless disregard for safety by cutting corners and relying on lax protocols. The result was catastrophic – stealing one life, harming dozens and impacting the home and livelihoods of hundreds more. Today’s sentence serves as little comfort to the victims, but is another step toward terminating Columbia Gas’s business in Massachusetts," Lelling said.
Speaking at the sentencing hearing, Mark Kempic, Columbia Gas president and chief operating officer, stressed the company accepted full responsibility "for the tragic event of Sept. 13, 2018 and conducted ourselves according."
"Today is no different, and it will be no different in the days and weeks ahead as we continue to move forward in the service of our customers and your communities," Kempic said.
Kempic told Judge Saylor the company takes the plea seriously and it weighs heavily "on our company and our employees."
"... And we continue to carry the event and the lessons learned with us everyday," Kempic said.
Under the plea deal, Columbia Gas accepted responsibility for the disaster, avoided criminal prosecution and agreed to pay the record fine while NiSource puts the company up for sale. Eversource has offered to buy Columbia Gas of Massachusetts in a deal worth $1.1 billion, which appears to have taken shape under the cloud of the federal investigation.
Columbia Gas has also agreed to allow a federal monitor to supervise its residential and commercial gas operations in the state for the next three years, or until it is sold.
Following the sentencing hearing, Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said he was happy the criminal process worked and the three communities "got their day in court.
"I am still dismayed that not one person lost their job or will spend time in jail for the loss of life and property that happened on Sept. 13, 2018. I want to thank, from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of the affected citizens of Lawrence, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling for prosecuting this matter. Without him, Columbia Gas would still be in existence, selling gas in Massachusetts. I hope that he and other federal leaders can find a way to make that $53 million fine help the families in the impacted communities," Rivera said.
He added, "It is clear, now more than ever, that the people of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover would have more use for this money than the federal government."
The gas disaster, caused by overpressurized lines operated by Columbia Gas, resulted in the death of Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence. Three firefighters and 19 civilians were hurt. Damages in Andover, Lawrence and North Andover are estimated at $1 billion.
About 50,000 people were forced to evacuate. Five homes were destroyed and 131 properties damaged, according to findings by the National Transportation Safety Board.
“With today’s sentence, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has finally been held criminally and financially responsible for their sheer greed and reckless disregard for public safety. That said, we realize that the excruciating pain, suffering, and heartbreaking loss of life the citizens of Merrimack Valley endured is beyond reparation,” said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Division.
“It is the FBI’s hope that the departure of Columbia Gas from Massachusetts will bring the residents of these cities and towns some much-needed peace of mind," Bonavolonta said.
Congresswoman Lori Trahan, D-Westford, noted the sentencing won't bring back Rondon or heal the physical and emotional scars of those injured in the disaster. However, she said it's an important step "toward justice for them and the hundreds of families who have suffered because of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts' negligence."
"I will continue to working to ensure that the funds from this fine are used to support the first responders, counselors, and countless others who continue to provide services to the victims of the explosions," said Trahan, in a statement.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.