Utility to pay $53M for blasts that damaged homes, killed 1

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A Massachusetts utility company will pay the largest criminal fine ever imposed for breaking a federal pipeline safety law.

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Columbia Gas of Massachusetts will pay $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.

The explosions 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.

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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.”

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ES EVERSOURCE ENERGY 93.46 +0.08 +0.09%

The company’s parent, Merrillville, Indiana-based NiSource Inc., also to sell the company and cease any gas pipeline and distribution activities in Massachusetts. Any profit from the sale of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts will be handed over to the federal government.

Eversource announced later Wednesday that it has agreed to buy the company’s natural gas assets in Massachusetts for $1.1 billion.

FILE – In this Sep. 21, 2018, file photo, fire investigators pause while searching the debris at a home which exploded following a gas line failure in Lawrence, Mass. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston announced Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, that Colum

The explosions and fires outraged the communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, where thousands of homes and businesses went without gas service for weeks, and months in some cases, during the winter. Residents and public officials lashed out at the company for not adequately responding and called for officials to be held accountable.

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A series of class action lawsuits stemming from the explosions has settled for $143 million. The settlement awaits final approval from a judge.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the explosions on overpressurized 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.

An internal company notice circulated in 2015 showed that the company knew that failing to properly account for control lines in construction projects could cause fires and explosions, officials said. Yet Columbia Gas cut corners to increase its bottom line, officials said.

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Until Columbia Gas is sold, an independent monitor will ensure that the company is following state and federal laws.

Columbia Gas is scheduled to plead guilty on March 9.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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