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Utility ordered to pay $53M criminal fine

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has been ordered to pay a $53 million criminal fine for causing a series of natural gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley that killed one person and damaged scores of homes and businesses.

The utility was sentenced more than three months after it pleaded guilty in federal court to causing the blasts that rocked Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, Massachusetts, in September 2018.

As part of the plea agreement, Columbia Gas will pay a $53 million fine for violating the Pipeline Safety Act. It reportedly is the largest criminal fine ever imposed under the pipeline safety law.

The judge also sentenced the company to a three-year probation period during which its operations will be monitored to ensure it is complying with safety regulations, authorities said.

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has said it takes full responsibility for the disaster.

After the plea deal was announced in February, Eversource said it agreed to buy Columbia Gas of Massachusetts’ natural gas assets for $1.1 billion. Federal authorities said the three-year probation period will last until Columbia Gas is sold.

Authorities 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.

“We expect utility companies operating in our communities to do so safely and responsibly,” U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said in an emailed statement. “Instead Columbia Gas acted with reckless disregard for safety by cutting corners and relying on lax protocols.”

Leonel Rondon, 18, died when a chimney collapsed on his vehicle in the driveway of a friend’s home. About two dozen others were injured, and dozens of buildings were damaged or destroyed.

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