LAWRENCE, Mass. — Members of Congress called for executives at the utility company blamed for September's natural gas explosions and fires in Massachusetts to step down Monday as they held a special hearing into the disaster.
The six House and Senate members from Massachusetts and New Hampshire, who held the hearing at a packed middle school gymnasium in Lawrence, took aim at the corporate culture at Columbia Gas of Massachusetts and its parent company, Indiana-based NiSource.
They painted a picture of a corporation that cut corners and lacked the internal procedures to prevent, let alone respond to, the Sept. 13 disaster that killed one person, injured dozens more, damaged more than 100 homes and left thousands without heat or hot water in the Merrimack Valley communities of Lawrence, North Andover and Andover.
The companies face federal and state investigations as well as class action lawsuits.
The National Transportation Safety Board has said that the company's failure to account for pressure sensors in planning a routine pipeline replacement project in Lawrence led to the explosions and fires.
"At every step of the process, there was a chance to avoid this disaster," said U.S. Sen. Ed Markey to company executives. "Instead of choosing safety, you chose savings. Instead of choosing to do things the right way, you chose to do things the easy way and the result was a disaster."
Joseph Hamrock, CEO of NiSource, and Steve Bryant, the president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, promised workers were doing everything in their power to restore gas service to thousands of customers despite missing an initial goal of full restoration before Thanksgiving. The company now says the process should be complete by early December.
Hamrock also told the panel he'd be asking his company's board to withhold certain incentives he's entitled to this year as part of his $5 million compensation. Bryant said he'd already asked that incentives on his more than $500,000 a year compensation be similarly withheld this year.
But panel members weren't moved.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, pushed the executives to disclose if anyone had been fired as a result of the disaster, but they declined to say. She also noted the company has been responsible for a number of gas leak incidents in Massachusetts in recent years.
"I just want to figure out what personal responsibility looks to you two," she said to Hamrock and Bryant. "You kept your jobs and you're still getting paid what sounds like a lot of money."
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera suggested Columbia Gas should not be allowed to operate in Massachusetts.
"Break it apart, revoke their license, make them sell their business to someone else," he said to the congressional panel. "Columbia Gas should cease to exist. No second chances."
The sister of the teenager who was the lone fatality in the disaster opened the hours-long hearing with tearful testimony, saying her family seeks justice for her brother and their community.
"We will not let this loss be without meaning," said Lucianny Rondon, the sister of 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, who was killed when a chimney toppled by the explosions landed on his parked vehicle. "Nobody should ever have to go through what my family has gone through ever again."
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