BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — The United States Attorney's Office has announced federal charges against Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, following the deadly gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley in 2018. The company has "agreed to plead guilty to violating the Pipeline Safety Act."
The FBI's Boston Office said the charges come after a joint investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of the Inspector General. The U.S. Attorney's Office held a press conference at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston.
Officials said Columbia Gas is "criminally" and "financially accountable" for the 2018 explosions in the Merrimack Valley, which took the life of 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, and damaged dozens of homes and buildings.
"Under the terms of the plea agreement filed in court today, first Columbia Gas will pay a $53 million fine... by far the largest criminal fine ever imposed by the Pipeline Safety Act," said U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling. "Until Columbia Gas is sold, an independent monitor... will monitor the company's activities... and report to the government on a monthly basis."
Columbia Gas is also to be sold by its parent company NiSource Inc., which will have to stop doing business in the state, and Columbia Gas will be on probation for three years.
Lelling said Columbia Gas "repeatedly ignored opportunities to ensure complete and accurate information" was available about the installation of the underground pipelines, which led to the "catastrophic event" in 2018 when the pressure "suddenly dropped... and the explosions occurred."
The $53 million fine, and the money from the sale of Columbia Gas, will go to the Federal Government's fund to support victims of such crimes.
Elise Chawaga, Principle Assistant Inspector General for Investigations called the charges against Columbia Gas of Massachusetts "truly unsettling," adding that the company had a "flagrant indifference" to its safety responsibilities, violating "minimum safety standards."
According to lead Special Agent Joe Bonavolonta, the company even failed to properly pass information between its own employees about pipeline locations. "Columbia Gas could not provide our colleagues with a list of who their customers were in the immediate aftermath of the explosions," said Bonavolonta.
Congressman Seth Moulton made a statement after prosecutors announced the guilty plea from Columbia Gas.
"NiSource/Columbia Gas has finally admitted what we all know," Moulton said. "Its negligence caused havoc and death in our community. The guilty plea is important, but nobody I represent has confidence in this company's ability to provide service safely. Peace of mine will not return so long as Columbia Gas/NiSource is doing business in the Merrimack Valley. It should be shut down."
In a statement to WBZ NewsRadio, Columbia Gas said they take "full responsibility for the tragic events of September 13, 2018 that so impacted our customers throughout the Merrimack Valley."
"Today's resolution with the U.S. Attorney's Office is an important part of addressing the impact," Columbia Gas said. "Our focus remains on enhancing safety, regaining the trust of our customers and ensuring that quality service is delivered."
The company says its focus now is on safety and regaining the trust of its customers.
This is a developing story. Stay with @wbznewsradio for updates.
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