Columbia Gas to pay $53M, serve 3 years probation for Merrimack Valley explosions

Columbia Gas to pay $53M, serve 3 years probation for Merrimack Valley explosions

BOSTON — A Massachusetts utility company will serve three years probation and pay more than $53 million in fines for causing a series of explosions and fires that killed a teenager and injured 22 others in 2018.

The president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, Mark Kempic, appeared in a video conference federal court session Tuesday morning to accept the sentence.

“We take our guilty plea very seriously,” he said. “Our hearts go out to everyone who was injured. We are truly sorry for their losses.”

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The company was ordered by U.S. District Court Chief Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV to pay a criminal fine of $53,030,116, which is more than double the company’s profits between 2015 and 2018.

“I wish I had the magic power to go back and erase all of this,” Saylor said in court.

As part of the plea agreement, the $53 million fine for violating the Pipeline Safety Act is the largest criminal fine ever imposed under the pipeline safety law.

The company said when the plea deal was announced last month that it takes full responsibility for the disaster in the Merrimack Valley.

"From the very outset, the company accepted responsibility for the tragic events on Sept. 13, 2018. Today's entry of its plea is another step in that process," Alejandro Mayorkas, an attorney for the company, told reporters after the hearing.

Eversource has agreed to buy Columbia Gas of Massachusetts’ natural gas assets for $1.1 billion. Any profit from the sale of the company will be handed over to the federal government along with the criminal fine.

Federal investigators blamed the explosions on overpressurized gas lines, saying the company failed to account for critical pressure sensors as workers replaced century-old, cast-iron pipes in Lawrence. That omission caused high-pressure gas to flood the neighborhood's distribution system at excessive levels.

Investigators found that Columbia Gas violated minimum safety standards for starting up and shutting down gas lines through a "pattern of flagrant indifference."

The explosions and fires outraged the communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, where thousands of homes and businesses went without gas service for weeks, and months in some cases, during the winter.

Leonel Rondon, 18, died when a chimney collapsed on his vehicle in the driveway of a friend’s home - hours after he had gotten his driver’s license. About two dozen others were injured, and dozens of buildings were damaged or destroyed.