After Gas Explosions in Massachusetts, Gas Company Settles for $80 Million

After Gas Explosions in Massachusetts, Gas Company Settles for $80 Million

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A gas company announced Tuesday that it had reached a settlement with three communities in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts after explosions and fires ripped through dozens of homes there last year, killing one person and injuring several more.

The blasts on Sept. 13 forced thousands of people to evacuate. Residents of the communities affected — Lawrence, Andover and North Andover — were not immediately sure what was to blame.

The authorities investigating the episode soon focused their attention on Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, which supplies natural gas to the area and had been working upgrade the distribution system around the time of the explosions.

On Tuesday, about eight months after the explosions, Columbia Gas, whose parent company is NiSource, announced a settlement with the municipalities: It is paying $80 million to cover costs associated with infrastructure repair and other expenses.

“We all wish the number was higher, but if you take into account the time value of money and the cost of lengthy litigation into account — this is a good deal,” Dan Rivera, the mayor of Lawrence, said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Most of the money is earmarked for road repairs, and the rest is for expense reimbursement and claimed losses. About half of the total will go to Lawrence, where more people were affected by the blasts.

“We do realize the tremendous impact that this has had on the residents and the communities here, and we are committed to restoring people back to where they were prior to this event,” Mark Kempic, who became president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts last week, said at the news conference.

The settlement announced on Tuesday is for the municipalities; it is separate from any individual claims involving injuries or personal losses. Columbia Gas has settled with at least one family whose members were injured because of the explosions.

“We welcome the orderly progression of civil lawsuits and look forward to resolution with residents of the Merrimack Valley,” a spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

After the explosions went off in September, hundreds of people spent the night in emergency shelters. Reports of gas leaks in the area continued for days, and thousands of people were without electricity. News emerged that a teenager, Leonel Rondon, 18, had died and at least 20 more people had been injured.

Residents and local politicians pushed for answers, and in October, the National Transportation Safety Board said that according to a preliminary investigation, Columbia Gas was to blame because of a faulty plan to replace aging gas pipes.

Before the accident, a crew contracted by Columbia Gas had been working to upgrade the natural gas distribution system in south Lawrence. The company had approved the plan to replace old cast-iron pipes, which had sensors to monitor pressure.

But disconnecting the old system disabled the gauges, and the flow of high-pressure gas into the system — without an accurate read of how high the pressure was — caused the explosions in all three communities.

“While we’ll not ever recover all of the devastating losses that occurred on Sept. 13, I’m confident that the funds included in the settlement will go a long way in improving the equality of life for residents and businesses that have been impacted by this gas disaster,” said Andrew Flanagan, the town manager for Andover. “Our work will begin immediately, but it will take several years to fully recognize the benefits of the settlement.”

Since the explosions, Columbia Gas has replaced more than 40 miles of main gas lines in the three communities and installed thousands of service lines.

“Everyone is home with heat and hot water,” Mr. Rivera, the mayor of Lawrence, said in an interview on Tuesday evening. “Everybody who wants gas has gas.”

But he said he was not happy that the company is essentially the only gas supplier for residents of the three municipalities.

“One of the reasons why I think the company should lose its license is because it’s the only place we’re able to get it,” he said, adding, “A company with more heart would have settled for more money.”

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