LAWRENCE - Advocates and elected officials on Wednesday said word that Columbia Gas of Massachusetts will plead guilty to a safety violation, pay a $53 million fine, and cease operations in the state following the 2018 Merrimack Valley explosions won’t change the fact that affected residents and businesses are still hurting.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera had sharp words for the company during an afternoon briefing, shortly after the deal was annoucned.
“It will be a great day in the Merrimack Valley and in the Commonwealth when Columbia Gas of Massachusetts no longer exists,” Rivera said. "“This was it just an infrastructure accident and because of this event, the human tragedy continues.”
The mayor added that proceeds from the $53 million fine should go to affected residents and said he still believes someone should be fired if not incarcerated, noting that one of his constituents, 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, was killed in the blasts.
"No amount of money could bring back young Leonel ... but every dime counts,” Rivera said, adding that gas companies now know "there will be a reckoning if something like this happens. That we can feel safe that we’re not going to be left out in the cold.”
The business community also weighed in.
“From our perspective, we’re working with hundreds and hundreds of businesses directly impacted” by the blasts that tore though Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover in September 2018, said Derek Mitchell, executive director of the Lawrence Partnership, an economic development nonprofit. “In the case of businesses, the impact is still very real today.”
Mitchell said he hopes the community can depend on NiSource, parent company of Columbia Gas, to continue supporting the business recovery effort “whether philanthropically or otherwise.”
Lawrence City Council President Kendrys Vasquez said he thought the plea deal was a “positive resolution” for city residents. The deal, he said, “demonstrates that regardless of how powerful of a company you are, if you commit something inappropriate you will have to pay for it.”
At the same time, Vasquez said, many city residents remain traumatized by the explosions.
“Every time a fire truck drives by, people have a higher sense of" concern, Vasquez said. “It’s that sense of trust. ‘What is happening in my community? ... Are we safe now?’ That’s not something that will easily go away.”
Among the lawmakers who spoke out Wednesday was US Senator Edward Markey, who along with Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Lori Trahan last year introduced a pipeline safety bill named for Rondon.
“Columbia Gas of Massachusetts cut corners on safety in order to cut down on costs, and Leonel Rondon paid the highest price for that criminal malfeasance,” Markey, a Malden Democrat, said in a statement. “It is a small justice for the Rondon family and all of Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover that Columbia Gas will no longer operate in Massachusetts and NiSource will pay millions for their role in this preventable disaster.”
The fine called for under terms of the plea deal is “a mere slap on the wrist,” Markey said.
He added that the financial penalty “will not do nearly enough to dissuade other massive billion-dollar energy companies from future negligence or from exploiting the same regulatory loopholes. Our natural gas pipeline infrastructure is a ticking time bomb unless we pass my Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act and close the regulatory safety loopholes that Senator Warren and I uncovered in our investigation.”
The Merrimack Valley, Markey said, "deserves justice, but we also deserve to have laws on the books that would prevent this sort of injustice from ever occurring. I will keep fighting in the Senate to ensure that we take the lessons of this tragedy and turn them into the law of our land so that a disaster like this never happens again.”
His words were echoed by Congressman Seth Moulton, a Salem Democrat who represents the Merrimack Valley.
“NiSource/Columbia Gas has finally admitted what we all know: its negligence caused havoc and death in our community,” Moulton said in a statement. “This guilty plea is important, but nobody I represent has confidence in this company’s ability to provide service safely. Peace of mind will not return so long as Columbia Gas/NiSource is doing business in the Merrimack Valley. It should be shut down.”
And Trahan, a Westford Democrat whose district includes Lawrence, also criticized Columbia Gas.
She said in a statement that the plea deal " confirms what we knew all along - that the tragic gas explosions from 2018 were both avoidable and the result of a careless abandonment of safety standards and practices. While nothing that follows will erase the pain felt by these communities, the news that Columbia Gas will be sold will help our region heal and return to a sense of normalcy."
Trahan said she remains "steadfast in my support for every family and business that was harmed by this disaster and will be by their side until every last claim is resolved. I will also continue my fight in Washington to advance the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act which will help ensure that no other community ever experiences what Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover did,”
Columbia Gas last year reached a $143 million class action settlement with residents and businesses affected by the gas explosions. The company said in October that the settlement figure was part of roughly $1 billion that it had dedicated toward recovery efforts up to that point.
The company also previously settled a lawsuit brought by Rondon’s family, as well as a lawsuit from the Figueroa family of Lawrence. Members of the Figueroa family were among dozens injured in the explosions. Also separate from the class action lawsuit was an $80 million payout that went to the three communities affected by the blasts, the Globe reported at the time.
Columbia Gas released a statement Wednesday taking responsibility for the disaster.
“Today’s resolution with the U.S. attorney’s office is an important part of addressing the impact,” the statement said. “Our focus remains on enhancing safety, regaining the trust of our customers and ensuring that quality service is delivered.”
NiSource released a separate statement, calling the agreement to plead guilty “an important step in addressing the tragic event of September 13, 2018, and our ongoing focus on enhancing safety and delivering quality service to our customers.”
NiSource said it’s "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.”
Laura Crimaldi of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.