Judge Sentences Columbia Gas for 2018 Explosions; Firm Must Pay $53 Million Criminal Fine, Leave State

First responders and media gathered in Lawrence in the wake of gas-related fires across the Merrimack Valley Sept. 13, 2018. (Jay Saulnier file photograph for WHAV News.)

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts was formally sentenced Tuesday in connection with the gas explosions on Sept. 13, 2018, in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover that killed a teenager, injured 22 and damaged homes and businesses.

Bay State Gas Company, the local division of Columbia Gas, was ordered by U.S. District Court Chief Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV to pay a criminal fine of $53,030,116 which represents twice the amount of profits the company earned between 2015 and 2018 from a pipeline program called the Gas System Enhancement Plan. In addition to a fine, the court also sentenced the company to a three-year period of probation during which its operations will be monitored to ensure compliance with federal and state safety regulations. The three-year period of probation will continue until Columbia Gas is sold to a qualified buyer.

Congresswoman Lori Trahan said, “Today’s sentencing won’t bring back Leonel Rondon, and it won’t heal the physical and emotional scars of the 22 people who were injured during the Merrimack Valley gas explosions. However, it is an important step toward justice for them and the hundreds of families who have suffered because of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts’ negligence.”

In February 2020, the company agreed to plead guilty to violating a minimum safety standard of the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act relating to the failure to implement procedures to prevent the over-pressurization of its low-pressure gas distribution system in South Lawrence during a pipe replacement project known as the South Union Project.

U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said, “We expect utility companies operating in our communities to do so safely and responsibly. Instead Columbia Gas acted with reckless disregard for safety by cutting corners and relying on lax protocols. The result was catastrophic—stealing one life, harming dozens and impacting the home and livelihoods of hundreds more.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office has also entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with Columbia Gas’ parent company, NiSource. of Indiana. It requires NiSource use its best reasonable efforts to sell the local division and stop all gas pipeline operations in Massachusetts. NiSource has also agreed to forfeit any profit it may earn from the sale.

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