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Politicians say utility at center of explosions should close

November 26, 2018
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As her mother Rosaly wipes away a tear, Lucianny Rondon, sister of Leonel Rondon, the young man killed in the Sept. 13, 2018, Merrimack Valley gas explosions, pauses while making a statement during a hearing on gas pipeline safety in the Merrimack Valley Monday, Nov. 26, 2018, in Lawrence, Mass. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

LAWRENCE, Mass. (AP) — Executives at the utility company responsible for September’s natural gas explosions and fires in Massachusetts should step down, congressional members said Monday at a special hearing into the disaster.

The six House and Senate members from Massachusetts and New Hampshire held the hearing at a packed middle school gymnasium in Lawrence. They took aim at the corporate culture at Columbia Gas of Massachusetts and its parent company, Indiana-based NiSource.

They painted a picture of a corporation that cut corners and lacked the internal procedures to prevent, let alone respond to, the Sept. 13 disaster that killed one person, injured dozens more, damaged more than 100 homes and left thousands without heat or hot water in the Merrimack Valley communities of Lawrence, North Andover and Andover.

The companies face federal and state investigations as well as class action lawsuits.

The National Transportation Safety Board has said that the company’s failure to account for pressure sensors in planning a routine pipeline replacement project in Lawrence led to the explosions and fires.

“At every step of the process, there was a chance to avoid this disaster,” said U.S. Sen. Ed Markey to company executives. “Instead of choosing safety, you chose savings. Instead of choosing to do things the right way, you chose to do things the easy way and the result was disaster.”

Joseph Hamrock, CEO of NiSource, and Steve Bryant, the president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, said the company was taking steps to assure another disaster doesn’t happen.

That includes adopting many of the initial recommendations from the safety board, such as having a professional engineer sign off on projects before any work starts.

Massachusetts and most other states don’t currently require that additional layer of oversight for public utilities, but Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed legislation changing that in Massachusetts.

Hamrock and Bryant said they’d also be seeking to forgo certain incentives in their salaries, which total roughly $5 million and more than $500,000, respectively.

But panel members weren’t moved.

They criticized the company for missing an initial goal of restoring gas service to all customers before Thanksgiving. The company now says the process should be complete by early December.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, pushed the executives to disclose if anyone had been fired as a result of the disaster, noting the company has been responsible for a number of gas leak incidents in Massachusetts in recent years.

Hamrock demurred, saying that the company would “take all appropriate actions” once the ongoing review into the incident is complete.

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, who testified Monday, suggested Columbia Gas should not be allowed to operate in Massachusetts.

“Break it apart, revoke their license, make them sell their business to someone else,” he said to the congressional panel. “Columbia Gas should cease to exist. No second chances.”

Congress members also used the hearing to underscore deficiencies they saw in natural gas oversight at the federal and local level.

Congressman Seth Moulton, also a Massachusetts Democrat, said the state, in recent years, has had no more than a dozen inspectors to review some 21,000 miles (33,795 kilometers) of natural gas pipeline — and only two were conducting field inspections at the time of the disaster.

“That doesn’t even seem close to adequate,” he said.

The sister of the teenager who was the lone fatality in the disaster opened the lengthy hearing with tearful testimony, saying her family seeks justice for her brother and their community.

“We will not let this loss be without meaning,” said Lucianny Rondon, the sister of 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, who was killed when a chimney toppled by the explosions landed on his parked vehicle. “Nobody should ever have to go through what my family has gone through ever again.”

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Follow Philip Marcelo at twitter.com/philmarcelo.

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