Columbia Gas CEO Apologizes for Valley Gas Disaster

(File photograph.)

Joe Hamrock expressed regret over the gas-related fires that displaced thousands in the communities of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence. (File photograph)

Displaced residents of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence were able to return to their homes over the weekend, but the work to uncover just what caused a Columbia Gas line to explode across the Merrimack Valley is just beginning.

At a Sunday press conference, Joe Hamrock, the CEO of Columbia Gas parent company NiSource, acknowledged the tragedy as “heartbreaking” and said his organization is fully cooperating with the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the cause.

“We all express our sincere regret and commitment to restoring lives in the Merrimack Valley in the days and weeks ahead,” Hamrock said.

The NiSource boss said Columbia Gas plans to take “full responsibility” for the outcome of the NTSB’s investigation. According to NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt, the federal agency will assess three weeks’ worth of local customer complaints and interview the Ohio-based pipeline controller who first recorded the increase in pressure. The company’s disaster protocol efforts will also be scrutinized.

Following the death of an 18-year-old Lawrence resident, that city’s mayor, Dan Rivera took Columbia Gas to task for “hiding the problem.”

“We had a responsibility to let the utility do what it’s supposed to do. We were asking for a heavy lift,” acknowledged Rivera. “We weren’t asking them to hit it out of the park, but we were expecting them to swing the bat. I feel like the Governor gave them that opportunity and they wasted it."

On Friday, Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in order to allow Eversource to run point on recovery efforts. As of Sunday morning, he confirmed that nearly all of the 8,600 affected gas meters had been manually checked and all homes declared free of gas. The power restoration effort in the affected communities is ongoing.