Columbia Gas, by outward appearances, is making a concerted effort to put last fall’s disaster in the Merrimack Valley behind it.
A few months ago, the utility settled a lawsuit with the Figueroa family, whose home exploded last Sept. 13 when an engineering mistake led to the over-pressurization of natural gas lines serving South Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. Shakira Figueroa, 21, suffered extensive leg injuries requiring at least four surgeries, according to the lawsuit filed by her family. Others in the family — all were home on Chickering Road in Lawrence at the time — were injured as well. The settlement amount was not made public, though Columbia Gas noted it would buy a motorized wheelchair and specialized van, and pay for other modifications to the home, as part of its aggreemnt with the Figueroas.
Leonel Rondon, 18, had just pulled up in the Figueroas’ driveway in a Toyota RAV4 when the explosions happened there and elsewhere in the Merrimack Valley. The house’s chimney collapsed and crushed the small SUV, killing Rondon. His death was the only fatality in a wave of fires, injuries and calamity that afternoon.
This past Tuesday, Columbia Gas announced a settlement with the teenager's family — again, the amount was not disclosed.
As part of the announcement, the Rondons again remembered a boy who loved science and music — the “happiness of the house,” his mother called him — who attended the Phoenix Academy charter in Lawrence and aspired to go to college. Joe Hamrock, CEO of NiSource, the Columbia Gas parent company, also made a statement recognizing the family’s irreparable loss and pain, and noting the company’s plan to create a scholarship in the boy’s name. The law firm representing the family, Sheff Law, announced plans for a scholarship as well.
Then there was the settlement between Columbia Gas and the three communities most directly affected by the disaster — $80 million for road repairs, to reimburse expenses, and to cover other losses that have piled up for Lawrence City Hall and the town halls in Andover and North Andover. That package was announced two months ago.
The timing of these settlements is striking, coming so close together, and so relatively close to a leadership change at the utility. Steve Bryant, former president of Columbia Gas, retired as of May 1. Mark Kempic, a longtime executive in other divisions of NiSource, became chief operating officer at the start of this year and assumed the role of president when Bryant left. The company's attention is also a sharp contrast to the lack of communication and coordination from Columbia Gas in the days and weeks immediately following the explosions and fires. If fresh leadership has brought a renewed focus and resources for those most affected by the disaster — which has cost the company well in excess of $1 billion at this point — it cannot be interpreted as anything but a positive development.
To be sure, plenty other issues are unresolved.
That was on clear display last week, when a rogue’s gallery of elected officials stood in front of the Rose & Dove Gift Shop in North Andover to announce a marketing campaign to give a shot to businesses in the Valley directly affected by the disaster. Columbia Gas’ $10 million fund to help the area’s economic recovery is underwriting the campaign.
More than 600 businesses lost gas service last Sept. 13. Many were forced to close, some for a matter of months. As many as 900 businesses were affected, if not by loss of gas then by the general chaos involved in closing streets and areas around them as the utility and its contractors repaired the area's infrastructure. One third of those businesses say their sales have not yet returned to where they were Sept. 12, according to Derek Mitchell, director of the Lawrence Partnership. For those businesses, certainly, the effects of the gas disaster linger.
As Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera noted during last Tuesday’s announcement of the “Rock the Register” campaign, it probably will be a long time before people can completely move on. "I always tell people I'm not sure it'll be over until some of the last scars in the streets are fixed, but more importantly, until people feel they have been made whole," he said. "And we are far from that today."
Columbia Gas' recent efforts to push the Merrimack Valley along path of recovery are encouraging. To be sure, for the restaurants, bars and other businesses that were affected, everyone living in the Valley and surrounding regions can help speed the recovery as well.