LAWRENCE — Nearly six months after deadly gas explosions ripped through the Merrimack Valley, killing one person, injuring others, and causing widespread damage, the incoming president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts pledged the utility will fulfill its promises to finish repairs and cover losses incurred by residents in the disaster.
“The citizens of Lawrence have been through a lot. I get it. . . . And we wished that it never happened, obviously,” Mark Kempic, CGM’s chief operating officer, told residents at the city’s high school Saturday.
Kempic, due to become the company’s president May 1, praised local residents for providing meals and for welcoming the utility’s crews during the recovery effort.
“We really want to work with you in order to pay back that graciousness by continuing to work with the communities,” Kempic said.
But many residents remain angry and frustrated at the company’s handling of the recovery effort since the Sept. 13 disaster that rocked parts of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover. During Saturday’s meeting with CGM officials, locals demanded that the company step up outreach efforts, support for businesses hit by losses due to the disaster, and improve transparency in the spending of $10 million set aside to help in the recovery.
Saturday’s meeting also highlighted what one Lawrence city councilor described as an ongoing problem with the outreach effort — the company has fallen short in connecting with residents who are not English speakers.
During Saturday’s meeting, a translator provided by Columbia Gas was inaccurately conveying what a resident was trying to tell Kempic, said Lawrence City Councilor Jeovanny A. Rodriguez.
“We’re having issues with the translation, and that’s in front of the president. Imagine what happened in a one-to-one conversation,” Rodriguez told a reporter after the event. “It’s extremely difficult and frustrating at the same time seeing this type of issue that shouldn’t be there.”
The total cost to Columbia Gas of Massachusetts during the recovery effort has passed $1 billion, according to its parent company, NiSource.
The disaster is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, which issued a preliminary report that an employee error during a pipeline replacement job in Lawrence led to over-pressurization of the system, causing more than 120 fires and explosions.
NiSource is also facing lawsuits alleging negligence, including one from the family of 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, who died in the accident. The cases have been consolidated before a single judge in Essex Superior Court and NiSource is negotiating a settlement with plaintiffs.
The US attorney’s office is investigating NiSource, and in a regulatory filing last month, NiSource said the Securities and Exchange Commission is conducting its own investigation “related to disclosures made prior to the Greater Lawrence Incident.”
In remarks to reporters after the meeting, Kempic said the company does “fully cooperate with all the investigations,” but declined further comment on them.
Since the disaster, CSG has restored gas service to 7,500 homes and businesses and replaced more than 45 miles of pipeline, according to the company.
As of Friday, CSG has made payments on 24,077 claims totalling about $95.1 million, the company said in a statement. Of those, 2,392 were from business claims that added up to $29 million. The company still faces 803 active claims.
The company has also contributed $10 million to economic development in the Merrimack Valley, which is being administered by the Essex County Community Foundation, the statement said.
On Saturday in Lawrence, Kempic pledged that the fund’s spending will be transparent.
Kempic spent the day at meetings with residents in Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence, announcing details for an ongoing project to replace furnaces, boilers, and hot water heaters that underwent quick repairs in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
The work will also include in-home visits by evaluation teams to help customers through the replacement process, including providing a scope of work and timeline for replacement, according to the company.
The company is thoroughly repairing roads that were torn open during the recovery and temporarily patched. It is also installing equipment designed to protect against over-pressurization in the lines, he said.
“We are not going to let this happen again,” Kempic told reporters.
During the meeting, Rodriguez, who represents the city’s District D, and fellow City Councilor-at-large Ana Levy, called on Kempic to do more to cover the losses incurred by local businesses.
“Let’s talk about the plan about how we bring them back to business as they were before,” Rodriguez told Kempic.
Among local business owners seeking claims for lost income is Emad Awad, who said he lost customers when his Riverside Pizzeria was damaged by fire in disaster.
He suffered burns to his arms and face fighting the fire himself, and his pizzeria was closed for more than four months, he said.
Since he reopened in late January, only about one-third of his customers returned, he said. Repairs were covered by insurance, he said, but Columbia Gas representatives have not followed through on pledges they would follow up on his case.
Now he’s debating whether to close his business, or try to find a way to stay open. It’s his only means of support for himself and his son, he said.
Despite Kempic’s assurances Saturday, he is not convinced the company will help him.
“I don’t believe them. I got too many promises from them,” Awad said.
Another resident, Homayoun Maali, left Saturday’s session frustrated with the company, which he said hasn’t completed repairs to his family’s home or paid them for losses due to the fires.
In his hand was a sign with a written message: “Please Help, Columbia Gas Adjusters Are Giving Our Citizens A Hard Time.”
Maali, 64, along with his wife, 21-year-old son, and 13-year-old grandson, were driven from their Chester Street home by fire on Sept. 13. They spent about four months living in a hotel before returning home.
But their homecoming wasn’t a return to normalcy: The house remains cold because of a faulty boiler and the family incurred expenses in the aftermath of the disaster. The company has been giving them the “run-around” about covering their costs, he said.
“They promise they’re going to do everything good, compensate [for losses]. They don’t do it,” Maali said. “Really, they don’t follow what they promise.”
Company officials also met Saturday morning with Andover residents at the Doherty Middle School.
Nancy Earley Wright said she came to the meeting out of concern that the company wouldn’t fully cover losses to local businesses in the disaster’s aftermath.
Wright, whoruns an Airbnb business out of her home, filed a claim with Columbia over lost income. But a few days ago, her claims adjuster denied it, and indicated money was drying up, she said.
“’I have to tell you, things are getting tighter the further we get from Sept. 13,’” she said the adjuster told her. “I expected him to be patient and work with me.”
She said she brought the issue to the attention of company officials Saturday. A Columbia representative reached out and told her they would work with her, she said.
She said she is confident in Columbia’s handling of her case and of the recovery effort.
“My favorite things are a good apology and a good promise,” she said. “They’ve lived up to both of them.”
But another Andover resident and business owner, Philippe Roussilhes, said he remains concerned that Columbia has not done enough to help local businesses recover.
Roussilhes and his wife own Max & Riley, a women’s clothing store in Andover. They had to close the business for four days in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and went for months without heat, forcing them to close early.
They want the company’s help in making up for the lost income, including thousands of dollars in merchandise they are unable to sell for full price.
“They should do the right thing,” he said. “They should make the community whole.”