Column: Safety standards, accountability must enforced after gas disaster

TIM JEAN/Staff photoSen. Elizabeth Warren and Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera answer questions on Sept. 21, 2018, after visiting residents in the Beacon Court apartments who where affected by the Merrimack Valley gas disaster.

We will never forget the confusion, the anger and the disbelief this time last year, when our Lawrence, North Andover and Andover communities shook from the gas pipeline explosions that destroyed homes, businesses and roads.

The explosions left thousands without heat or hot water during some of the coldest months of the year, put dozens of people in the hospital, and tragically killed one young man, 18-year old Leonel Rondon.

A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report laid blame for the explosions squarely at the feet of the pipelines’ owner, Columbia Gas, and its parent company, NiSource. The NTSB identified a series of problems with Columbia Gas’ management and the processes used by its engineers.

The flaws revealed a pervasive, and ultimately tragic, culture of negligence and disregard for safety.

When Columbia Gas and NiSource executives testified before a Senate Commerce Committee field hearing, led by Sen. Ed Markey last November, they pledged to take “personal responsibility” for the explosions but failed to explain what “personal responsibility” meant.

When we asked them whether “personal responsibility” meant they would lose their jobs, they said no. When we asked them whether “personal responsibility” meant they would have their salaries reduced, they said they probably wouldn’t receive their annual incentive bonuses.

Their negligence caused a teenager to die, displaced thousands of people for months and shut down local economies, but they still expected to receive every cent of their salaries through the end of the year.

Things turned out differently for our small business owners and their employees in the Merrimack Valley.

The explosions affected nearly 900 businesses in the Lawrence, North Andover and Andover communities.  Many were forced to close or go without heat for months. Business owners took out loans and dipped into their savings to cover the cost of rebuilding damaged infrastructure while waiting for payments from Columbia Gas. Others have seen a significant drop in revenues and fear lost customers will never return.

Our community leaders came together to launch the “Rock the Register” campaign to encourage customers to shop locally, but many of the affected business owners and their employees are still digging out of a financial hole — and may be for the foreseeable future.

The Merrimack Valley gas explosions are just one example of a pattern we’ve seen play out repeatedly: when corporate executives cut corners and hurt consumers, they leave it to taxpayers and communities to clean up the mess.

We saw this during the financial crisis of 2008, when the big banks tanked the economy — causing millions of Americans to lose their jobs, homes and savings — and not a single big bank CEO went to jail.

We saw it when Wells Fargo executives pinned the blame for opening millions of fake accounts on low-level employees while collecting multi-million dollar paychecks and overseeing other scams that continue to this day. We saw it when Equifax played fast and loose with its customers’ data, leaving over 145 million Americans vulnerable to identity fraud.

We see it when fossil fuel companies pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and lobby the government to block meaningful action to address climate change. We see it when pharmaceutical companies rig the rules to keep drug prices sky high, forcing people with diabetes to choose between paying for insulin and paying the rent.

This pattern repeats itself because powerful corporations and the executives that run them rarely face consequences for the problems they cause — which means they rarely have an incentive to change.

Congress must take action to prevent a disaster like the one that occurred last year in the Merrimack Valley from ever happening again.

First, we should pass the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Markey and Rep. Lori Trahan to close regulatory loopholes and increase pipeline safety standards.

Next, we should pass Sen. Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act to require companies with more than $1 billion in annual revenue, including NiSource, to truly prioritize the interests of employees, customers and communities when they make decisions.

So, NiSource would have to focus on providing the best service to its customers in the long run, instead of cutting costs to boost shareholder profit over the next quarter.

We can’t undo the pain the gas explosions have caused in the Merrimack Valley, but we can make big structural change to protect our families, homes and communities from future disasters.

That starts with putting strong safety standards in place and holding executives accountable if they fail to meet them — and it has to start right now.

Elizabeth Warren represents Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate. Daniel Rivera is mayor of Lawrence.

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