Columbia Gas Execs Grilled At Senate Hearing Over September Explosions

merrimack valley senate hearing

A packed crowd listens to a Senate hearing on the Merrimack Valley gas explosions. (Twitter/@LoriUSCongress)

LAWRENCE (WBZ-AM) -- Columbia Gas company executives got a grilling in Lawrence Monday morning as a U.S. Senate committee opened an investigatory hearing into the September 13 Merrimack Valley gas explosions.

At the hearing, which was held in front of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology in the South Lawrence East Middle School Gymnasium, President of Columbia Gas Steve Bryant was apologetic.

"I know our work has been far from perfect," he said. "I apologize for the hardship and frustration it has certainly caused, and give you my commitment that we will continue to work to rebuild and restore the Merrimack Valley."

The gas disaster touched off hundreds of fires in homes and businesses in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover and left one person--teenager Leonel Rondon--dead after a chimney fell on his car. Rondon's family was invited to speak at the hearing, and his sister, Lucianny Rondon, talked about their struggle through tears.

"We will not have the joy of seeing the wonderful man we know he would have become," she said. "Nobody should ever go through what my family has gone through ever again."

The testimony of local elected officials was aggressive, and at times combative. 

Sen. Ed Markey asked NiSource CEO Joe Hamrock if he commits under oath that every family and business will be made 100 percent financially whole. Markey cut off Hamrock until he answered "yes."

"Your recklessness was a wrecking ball," Markey said to Bryant.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren asked Hamrock if his salary had been cut since the crisis. He answered that he's recommended his bonus be withheld. Last year, he earned five million dollars. 

"The people in this room have been injured, you have not," Warren said. "You continue to keep your jobs, to collect your big paychecks, and to go on about your business. Personal responsibility means you step up in this, not simply that you back away and say you'll figure out how other people can deal with this problem."

Warren was not impressed with Columbia Gas or NiSource. 

"I'm not seeing a company that takes safety seriously, and I'm not seeing people at the head of the company who take any personal accountability for the kind of tragedy that a culture that is not focused on safety causes to the public," she said.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera told the committee that Columbia Gas was the least informed and last to act, failing to manage the disaster the same way they failed to maintain their gas lines. He 

Congressman Seth Moulton called on Bryant to resign.

NiSource committed to installing automatic gas shutoffs on their system. Such shutoffs could have prevented much of the damage done in September.

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