ANDOVER — The three Merrimack Valley communities hit by the Sept. 13 natural gas disaster reached an $80 million settlement with Columbia Gas that will allow them to repair the last visible scars from a catastrophe that displaced thousands and led to months of upheaval.
Most of the money — $57 million — will be used by Andover, Lawrence, and North Andover to repave public streets that were dug up when the utility replaced 43 miles of underground pipes over the fall, in a race to restore gas service to thousands of residents who went without heat or hot water for weeks.
Officials said they hoped the money and the repairs to streets will help bring a sense of normalcy to communities that are still coming to terms with the tremendous damage and disruption caused by the disaster.
“I think we’re going to be a long time before people can say they feel better,” said Lawrence Mayor Daniel A. Rivera. “I think the streets, the unpaved pavement is the last visible scars of the event, but all you have to do is go into one of these homes . . . to see there are people still emotionally dealing with this, physically, financially dealing with this, especially the businesses. I think being OK is a long time coming.”
Mark Kempic, the new chief executive of Columbia Gas, said Tuesday that the company is committed to returning neighborhoods to their condition before Sept. 13, and to rebuilding confidence among its customers. The gas eruption triggered more than 120 fires and explosions, forcing tens of thousands of residents to temporarily evacuate.
“We do realize the tremendous impact this has had on the residents and the communities here, and we are committed to restoring things to what they were,” he said.
Kempic also said the company has settled 97 percent of the individual claims for damages and reimbursements that were filed, paying out more than $100 million. Last week, Columbia’s parent company, NiSource, said that costs of the restoration had surpassed $1.6 billion.
In April, Columbia Gas announced it had reached an undisclosed settlement with one of the families affected by the disaster, and the company said it was negotiating other civil lawsuits, including one filed by the family of 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, who was killed.
But even now, eight months later, the landscape in the disaster zone is far from normal. In Andover Tuesday, construction crews had set up on Beacon Street, a cut-through from a nearby school, with large orange signs announcing “Work Area Ahead.” In Lawrence, bulldozers were hard at work on South Common, attempting to restore the park.
“It’s devastating, a mess,” said Judit Tejada, stopping during her daily exercise routine around the park to point out the mountains of dirt in the background. She’d like to bring her daughter, 9, to play at the park again, but for now she can’t: A locked fence keeps residents at bay while the work is ongoing.
Yesenia Pena, who lives on Salem Street across from South Common park, said the construction trucks arrive just after 5 every morning, rumbling the house as they did when they tore up the streets to replace the underground pipe network in the weeks after the disaster. She still goes into a panic whenever she thinks she smells gas in the basement.
“It was difficult for us,” said the mother of three young children, including a son with autism who struggles with the noise.
With the settlement money, the three communities will complete the repair work themselves. Some roads may need to be dug up again, for instance, for unrelated reasons, and the communities could use the funds to repair them at their own discretion.
The three communities will then split the remaining $23 million, with Lawrence receiving half, Andover 30 percent, and North Andover 20 percent. That money is meant to reimburse communities for their costs responding to the disaster, such as on pay and overtime for emergency personnel and building inspectors, as well to restore parks and other areas that were damaged during construction.
Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan said that the “trenches in the roads have been a constant reminder” of the disaster, and that the settlement will help in “putting the unfortunate events of Sept. 13 behind us.”
“The goal has from the beginning been to restore impacted roads and sidewalks to a condition that is better than it was on Sept. 13,” he said.
While all three communities could have hoped for more money, Flanagan said, the settlement was preferable to prolonging negotiations. The communities intend to repave entire streets, from curb to curb, with much of the work beginning this summer, though the process could take years to complete.
Kempic said the settlement was a “significant milestone in the overall restoration efforts.”
But as he has done consistently in recent months, Rivera again lambasted Columbia for bringing “lawyers and bureaucrats” to the bargaining table, though he called the settlement a “legal document” that will allow the communities to move toward some closure.
“This settlement represents the best effort of the municipalities to get the most dollars from Columbia to fix what had happened,” he said. “We all wish the number was higher, but to take into account [the costs of litigation], this was a good deal.”
The incident remains under investigation, though a preliminary review by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the system was overpressurized, likely caused when an engineer failed to account for a pressure sensor while drawing up plans for routine pipe replacement. That means a critical safety element was missing when gas was pumped back into the local system.
The NTSB is expected to release a follow-up report in the coming weeks.