The utility company whose gas lines killed one person, injured 22 and displaced some 50,000 Massachusetts residents in a series of fires and explosions in 2018 has agreed to plead guilty to federal charges following an investigation by the US attorney there.
“We’re here because this investigation found that Columbia Gas, through a pattern of flagrant indifference in the face of extreme risks to life and property, knowingly violated minimum safety standards for starting up and shutting down gas pipelines,” US Attorney Andrew Lelling said Wednesday at a news conference. “This disaster was caused by a wholesale management failure.”
Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has agreed pay a $53 million fine as part of a guilty plea to a felony violation of the Pipeline Safety Act, Lelling said. That’s double what Columbia Gas was pursuing in profits from the pipeline project at the heart of the disaster, Lelling said.
Columbia Gas’ parent company, NiSource, also has agreed to take steps to sell the Massachusetts branch of the company and cease doing business in the commonwealth, he said. Any profits from that sale will also be turned over to the federal government under the agreement.
Until the sale, Columbia Gas’ operations in Massachusetts will be overseen by a monitor to be chosen by the US Department of Transportation, Lelling said.
NiSource could not give a time line Wednesday on the expected sale, spokesman Ken Stammen told CNN in a statement. The company would honor the agreement, he said.
“Today’s agreement with the US Attorney’s Office is an important step in addressing the tragic events of September 13, 2018, and our ongoing focus on enhancing safety and delivering quality service to our customers,” Stammen said. “We are committed to doing what is in the best interests of both the public we serve and our dedicated employees, and we will fulfill the terms of our agreement today consistent with that commitment.”
Columbia Gas of Massachusetts also issued a statement Wednesday in which the company took “full responsibility for the tragic events of September 13, 2018, that so impacted our customers throughout the Merrimack Valley.”
“Today’s resolution with the US Attorney’s Office is an important part of addressing the impact,” the statement continued. “Our focus remains on enhancing safety, regaining the trust of our customers and ensuring that quality service is delivered.”
The 2018 catastrophe killed 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, who was sitting in a car in Lawrence when an explosion caused a chimney to fall on the vehicle.
The series of fires and gas explosions was caused by over-pressurization of the area’s natural gas distribution system, a National Safety Transportation Board investigation report released in September found.
“The NTSB determines that the probable cause … was Columbia Gas of Massachusetts’ weak engineering management that did not adequately plan, review, sequence, and oversee the construction project that led to the abandonment of a cast iron main without first relocating regulator sensing lines to the new polyethylene main,” NTSB Managing Director Sharon Bryson said at the time. “Contributing to the accident was a low-pressure natural gas distribution system designed and operated without adequate over-pressure protection.”
NiSource subsidiaries also operate pipelines in Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, Lelling said Wednesday. NiSource has agreed to implement NTSB recommendations across all of its subsidiaries’ pipelines as part of its agreement with the government, he said.