The rebranding of the natural gas company that serves the Merrimack Valley is finally happening, as Columbia Gas of Massachusetts fades from view and is replaced by Eversource Energy. A $1.1 billion deal, finalized last week and memorialized by a press conference Tuesday, is a significant milestone in the region’s long recovery from the September 2018 gas disaster.
Still and all, locals can be forgiven for not dancing in the streets.
A fresh start is positive, for sure. Eversource, party to the forced sale of the Columbia Gas operation in Massachusetts, promises investment in infrastructure and safety. Bill Akley, its president of gas operations, described a “commitment to excellence” that some 330,000 former Columbia Gas customers will see in their new provider. With the addition, Eversource counts more than 600,000 customers in 110 cities and towns in Massachusetts.
There’s no forgetting the long road that brought us here, or the mental and physical scars from a disaster that damaged more than 130 structures, injured dozens of people, killed one and ultimately cost NiSource, parent company of Columbia Gas, upward of $1.6 billion. The company’s plea deal in federal court included a $53 million fine and its acceptance of a sale.
Other reminders of the weaknesses of the gas infrastructure persist. Not a month ago, a contractor ripped open a gas line in downtown Andover — in the area affected by the 2018 disaster — prompting the evacuation of St. Augustine’s School, homes and businesses. The problem, according to town officials was a line not properly marked by Columbia Gas. Thankfully no one was injured.
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, more outspoken than anyone about extracting justice for the region's disaster, ironically did not attend Tuesday’s press conference. He’s on vacation. But his comments last month to state regulators weighing approval of the transfer resonate.
Rivera urged the sale to “bring justice to our communities” and ensure Columbia Gas of Massachusetts “will no longer exist.”
Still, he offered sage wisdom for gas utilities in the Merrimack Valley and elsewhere in the state: “This is a cautionary tale for Eversource regarding your responsiveness, responsibility and humanity. Your product is not your gas, or gas lines. Your product is enabling the human condition. Never forget the people who pay those monthly bills."