BOSTON (CBS/AP) — A utility company was ordered Tuesday to pay a $53 million criminal fine for causing a series of natural gas explosions in Massachusetts that killed one person and damaged dozens of homes.
Columbia Gas of Massachusetts was sentenced more than three months after the company pleaded guilty in federal court to causing the blasts that rocked three communities north of Boston in September 2018.
As part of the plea agreement, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts will pay a $53 million fine for violating the Pipeline Safety Act. It’s the largest criminal fine ever imposed under the pipeline safety law.
The judge also sentenced the company to a three-year probation period during which its operations will be monitored to ensure its complying with safety regulations, authorities said.
Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has said it takes full responsibility for the disaster.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera released a statement on Tuesday, saying:
“While I’m happy that the process worked and the citizens of Lawrence Andover and North Andover got their day in court, I am still dismayed that not one person lost their job or will spend time in jail for the loss of life and property that happened on September 13th 2018. I want to thank, from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of the affected citizens of Lawrence US Attorney Andrew Lelling for prosecuting this matter. Without him, Columbia Gas would still be in existence, selling gas in Massachusetts. I hope that he and other federal leaders can find a way to make that $53M fine help the families in the impacted communities. It is clear, now more than ever, that the people of Lawrence Andover and North Andover would have more use for this money than the federal government.”
After the plea deal was announced in February, Eversource said it agreed to buy Columbia Gas of Massachusetts’ natural gas assets for $1.1 billion. Federal authorities said the three-year probation period will last until Columbia Gas is sold.
Authorities 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.
“We expect utility companies operating in our communities to do so safely and responsibly,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in an emailed statement. “Instead Columbia Gas acted with reckless disregard for safety by cutting corners and relying on lax protocols.”
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.
(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)