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Massachusetts Utility Ordered to Pay $53M for Fatal Explosions

FILE– In this Sept. 13, 2018 file image taken from video provided by WCVB in Boston, flames consume a home of Lawrence, Mass. police officer Ivan Soto in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston. Columbia Gas of Massachusetts was ordered Tuesday, June 23, 2020, to pay a $53 million criminal fine for causing a series of natural gas explosions in Lawrence and nearby towns that killed one person and damaged dozens of homes. The company was sentenced more than three months after the it pleaded guilty in federal court to causing the blasts. (WCVB via AP, File)

One person was killed in 2018 explosions in several towns

BOSTON (AP) — A utility company was ordered Tuesday to pay a $53 million criminal fine for causing a series of natural gas explosions in Massachusetts that killed one person and damaged dozens of homes.

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts was sentenced more than three months after the company pleaded guilty in federal court to causing the blasts that rocked three communities north of Boston in September 2018.

As part of the plea agreement, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts will pay a $53 million fine for violating the Pipeline Safety Act. It’s 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 its 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 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.

“We expect utility companies operating in our communities to do so safely and responsibly,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew 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 — hours after he had gotten his driver’s license. About two dozen others were injured, and dozens of buildings were damaged or destroyed.

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