Judge orders Columbia Gas to pay $53 million fine

  • In this Sept. 13, 2018 file image taken from video provided by WCVB in Boston, flames consume a home of Lawrence police officer Ivan Soto in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston. Columbia Gas of Massachusetts was ordered Tuesday to pay a $53 million criminal fine for causing a series of natural gas explosions in Lawrence and nearby towns that killed one person and damaged dozens of homes. The company was sentenced more than three months after it pleaded guilty in federal court to causing the blasts.  WCVB via AP, FILE PHOTO

State House News Service
Published: 6/23/2020 2:40:35 PM

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, the company whose distribution lines became overpressurized in September 2018 causing a deadly string of explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley, was sentenced Tuesday for its role in the incident.

The company was ordered by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Dennis Saylor IV to pay a criminal fine of more than $53 million – an amount that represents two times the profits Columbia Gas earned from the state’s Gas System Enhancement Plan program between 2015 and 2018.

“We expect utility companies operating in our communities to do so safely and responsibly,” U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said. “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. Today’s sentence serves as little comfort to the victims, but is another step towards terminating Columbia Gas’s business in Massachusetts.”

In February, Lelling’s office announced that Columbia Gas had agreed to plead guilty to a federal felony in connection with the gas fires and explosions and that its parent company NiSource was ordered to sell off Columbia Gas. Within hours, Eversource Energy announced that it had reached an agreement to buy Columbia Gas’s Massachusetts assets for $1.1 billion.

The deal still requires the approvals of the state Department of Public Utilities and U.S. Department of Justice, and regulators with the state DPU in October opened separate investigations into the Merrimack Valley incident and Columbia Gas’s handling of it.

Once the DPU investigations are complete, the Baker administration has said, the agency could levy its own multi-million dollar penalty on Columbia Gas and take steps to improve the overall safety of the state’s natural gas distribution system.

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