Columbia Gas Should Pay $33 Million for Non-Compliance: Lawrence Mayor

Rivera said the utility knew since at least July 30 that properties may still have abandoned service lines requiring additional inspection

Lawrence, Massachusetts Mayor Dan Rivera is calling on authorities to levy a hefty fine on Columbia Gas for failing to fully comply with a restoration plan following last year's Merrimack Valley gas explosions.  

In sharply worded statement Thursday, Rivera said the utility knew since at least July 30 that properties may still have abandoned service lines requiring additional inspection. He said Columbia Gas should pay $1 million for every day it failed to act.

"This lack of transparency costs us time otherwise spent fixing the problem," Rivera said in a statement.

"Not only does this slow down the process of road restoration work that Lawrence was about to begin, it once again puts our back against a wall to fix a gas problem with the impending cold weather."

The statement came after Columbia Gas notified regulators about concerns the company had with work on two of the abandoned lines, prompting the Department of Public Utilities to order a variety of precautionary safety steps. 

Columbia Gas announced Thursday it would begin contacting customers associated with about 700 abandoned service lines to schedule inspections either inside or outside of the home or business, depending on the customer's preference.

"We recognize that our customers have been through a difficult year as we conducted the recovery and restoration work in these communities. We understand that additional work may frustrate them, and we apologize," said Mark Kempic, president and chief CEO of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts. 

The utility said the service lines, which were disconnected from gas mains and are no longer in use, did not pose any known safety concerns, but "some instances of noncompliance with Massachusetts requirements related to the process of abandoning service lines" were detected.

"These compliance checks are being conducted out of an abundance of caution and in order to verify that the work on these lines was done consistent with Massachusetts requirements," the company said in a statement posted on its website. "These compliance checks will not affect the new service lines that were installed in the fall, and therefore there will be no disruption to gas service for customers."

The utility's announcement came on the eve of the first anniversary of the explosions, which killed a teenager and set more than 100 homes on fire and displaced some 8,000 people. 

Thousands of customers of Columbia Gas were left without gas service, including heat and hot water, during the winter months. The explosions were blamed on over-pressurized natural gas lines.

Columbia Gas agreed in July to pay $143 million to settle all class action lawsuits related to the disaster.

The settlement is part of the $1 billion in funds dedicated to address the disaster relief. Columbia Gas has said it is continuing to process claims made in connection to the explosions.

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