Columbia Gas has pleaded guilty to a federal safety violation that led to a series of natural gas explosions in northeastern Massachusetts in September 2018. The blasts badly damaged three towns, killed one person, and injured dozens of others.

Mark Kempic, president and CEO of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts,  entered the guilty plea on behalf of the company in a Boston federal court. The company pleaded guilty to a single charge that it recklessly overlooked key safety measures in violation of the federal Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act.

Record criminal fine

Last month, the utility agreed to pay a $53 million criminal penalty as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.

U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, told the press that the fine “is by far the largest criminal fine ever imposed under the Pipeline Safety Act.”

“This disaster was caused by a wholesale management failure at Columbia Gas,” Lelling said in announcing the penalties, according to the Boston Globe. He added that the company “simply failed to do what it was supposed to do to ensure public safety”

Dozens of natural gas explosions ripped through the Merrimack Valley Sept. 13, 2018, killing 18-year-old Leonel Rondon of Lawrence, Massachusetts, and damaging or destroying more than 130 buildings in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates pipeline accidents, faulted Columbia Gas for years of systemic failures and found that serious safety lapses made during a pipeline replacement project caused its distribution system to become catastrophically over-pressurized.

Costly errors

The agreement was announced a day before a state judge was to review a $143 million settlement struck between Columbia Gas and residents affected by the gas explosions. Additionally, the utility has also agreed to pay more than $80 million to the three towns for costs associated with the response.

Columbia Gas also reached an undisclosed settlement with Leonel Rondon’s family.

Indiana-based NiSource, until recently the parent company of Columbia Energy, last year told investors that costs associated with the 2018 disaster flew past $1.6 billion and were expected to keep climbing, according to Utility Dive. That number is substantially higher than the amount the company said it expected to pay a year ago.

On Feb. 25, Eversource Energy of Boston announced it had acquired Columbia Gas from NiSource for $1.1 billion, adding some 330,000 natural gas customers to its distribution network.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera and others praised the Columbia Gas acquisition. “It will be a great day in the Merrimack Valley and in the Commonwealth when Columbia Gas of Massachusetts no longer exists,” Mayor Rivera said. Previously he had urged state regulators to revoke the company’s license.

Sentencing is set for April 6, according to NBC 10 Boston. At that time, anyone affected by the blasts will be allowed to share victim impact statements.

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