A utility company will pay the largest criminal fine ever imposed for breaking a federal pipeline safety law — $53 million — and plead guilty to causing a series of natural gas explosions in Massachusetts that killed one person and damaged dozens of homes, federal officials said Wednesday.
Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has agreed to plead guilty to violating the Pipeline Safety Act and pay the fine to resolve a federal investigation into the explosions that rocked three communities in the Merrimack Valley, north of Boston, in September 2018.
“Today’s settlement is a sobering reminder that if you decide to put profits before public safety, you will pay the consequences,” FBI Agent Joseph Bonavolonta said.
The company said in an emailed statement that it takes full responsibility for the disaster.
“Today’s resolution with the U.S. Attorney’s Office is an important part of addressing the impact,” the company wrote. “Our focus remains on enhancing safety, regaining the trust of our customers and ensuring that quality service is delivered.”
The company’s parent, Merrillville, Indiana-based NiSource Inc., has also agreed to try to sell the company and cease any gas pipeline and distribution activities in Massachusetts, according to court documents. Any profit from the sale of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts will be handed over to the federal government.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said his office’s investigation found that Columbia Gas violated minimum safety standards for starting up and shutting down gas lines through a “pattern of flagrant indifference.”
“This disaster was caused by a whole management failure at Columbia Gas,” Lelling said.
Federal investigators blamed the explosions on over-pressurized 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.
The explosions and fires in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover injured about 25 people and damaged or destroyed dozens of buildings. Many people were forced into temporary shelter, and thousands of homes and businesses went without natural gas service for weeks and even months during the winter.
Leonel Rondon, 18, died when a chimney collapsed on his vehicle in the driveway of a friend’s home. He had gotten his driver’s license just hours earlier.