Utility to plead guilty to federal charges over explosions

Gas Explosions

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BOSTON, MASS (WLNE) – Columbia Gas of Massachusetts (CMA) agreed to accept responsibility for the explosions that happened in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover that injured 22 people, damaged homes and businesses and killed one individual.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston tweeted Wednesday that Columbia Gas of Massachusetts will plead guilty to violating the Pipeline Safety Act following a federal investigation from September 2018.

According to a release from the FBI Boston Division, CMA will pay a criminal fine of $53,030,116, which is the largest criminal fine ever imposed under the Pipeline Safety Act.

The U.S Attorney’s Office also entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), with the parent company of CMA, NiSource Inc. based in Indiana.

NiSource has agreed to undertake its best efforts to sell CMA, after which all gas pipeline operations in Massachusetts would cease.

According to the charging documents, the over-pressurization of a low-pressure gas distribution system in South Lawrence caused multiple fires and explosions in the three communities.

One individual in Lawrence was killed, and another severely disabled according to the U.S Attorney’s office.

A total of 131 residential homes and commercial buildings were damaged.

The charges brought forward allege that CMA recklessly disregarded a known safety risk related to regulator control lines- sections of pipe connector to regulator stations that helped monitor and control downstream gas pressure, which the CMA knew tat failure to properly account for control lines in construction projects could lead to a “catastrophic event”.

The DPA with NiSource acknowledges the fact that NiSource has previously made substantial voluntary restitution payments to the victims of the incident.

Now that the criminal case has been settled there are still some loose ends to tie up in court.

At the top of the list, a nine-figure class action settlement that’s looking like it’ll be the largest in state history.

Fall River lawyer Brian Cunha is representing 175,000 people affected by those gas explosions.

This class action settlement is worth $143 million and Columbia Gas is even on board with it.

However, there are still 14 residents that think that’s not enough to cover the cost and that’s where the judge comes in.

“The judge [Thursday] has to make a decision whether this $143 million is sufficient and it’s my opinion it is,” Cunha said. “It’s by far the largest settlement in Massachusetts history in Superior Court.”

This number was not plucked out of thin air, and Cunha had extensive conversations with Columbia Gas to figure out what figure is fair for compensation to the residents impacted.

“They were heated, difficult conversations over many many days,” he said.

If the judge approves, each family in the three towns will walk with at least $10,000, as long as everyone signs up for a claim.

“And it may be more depending on whether or not everyone opts in or not,” Cunha said. “Over 10,000 claims have been filed. We’re waiting for more.”

That judge will also rule on how long residents will have to file a claim.

ABC 6 reached out to the law firm representing those objecting to the agreed settlement, but we have not heard back.

That hearing will be Thursday in Salem Superior Court.

©WLNE-TV/ABC6 2020

*This Story Uses Information from The Associated Press

Categories: Massachusetts, News