BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — The state Department of Public Utilities has approved a settlement agreement with Columbia Gas of Massachusetts for its role in the 2018 Merrimack Valley gas explosions.
Under the terms of the agreement, Columbia Gas will pay $56 million, leave Massachusetts, and transfer its assets to Eversource Energy.
The DPU said the funds from the settlement "will provide debt relief to thousands of low-income gas customers and fund clean energy and energy efficiency measures in older homes and buildings in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover."
The agreement resolves DPU’s investigation into the company’s pipeline safety compliance and emergency response related to the September 2018 explosions, which killed one and injured dozens of residents.
“Our approval of this settlement ensures that Columbia Gas is held accountable for the tragic gas incident in the Merrimack Valley, and provides needed support to the impacted communities and low-income residents,” said DPU Chairman Matthew Nelson. “With today’s Order, the Department of Public Utilities remains committed to vigorous oversight of utilities and the safety of the Commonwealth’s natural gas system.”
The DPU said the $56 million will enable the creation of an Energy Relief Fund that will help approximately 26,000 low-income customers across Columbia Gas’ service territories, by erasing about $15 million in accumulated debt on their gas bills.
The remaining funds will be directed to a Merrimack Valley Renewal Fund, which will provide clean energy programs and grants for residents, businesses, and municipalities in the Merrimack Valley.
The asset transfer is expected to occur by November 1, at which time the DPU said Eversource will be required to implement "a comprehensive safety and reliability program, and address any remedial actions remaining from Columbia’s pipeline safety violations from the explosion."
Eversource is also required to develop a clean energy analysis to ensure that its business strategies are consistent with the Commonwealth’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction requirements.
After the 2018 incident, Gov. Charlie Baker declared a State of Emergency and authorized Eversource to take management control over the coordinated effort to safely restore utility services in South Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. The Administration selected an independent auditor to conduct a statewide examination of the safety of the natural gas distribution system, and the operational and maintenance functions of natural gas companies in the Commonwealth.
To help the communities recover, the Baker-Polito Administration also leveraged over $13 million in emergency funds for businesses directly impacted by the recent gas explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.
At the end of 2018, Baker additionally signed legislation that required all natural gas work that could pose a material risk to public safety be reviewed and approved by a certified professional engineer.
The $56 million settlement agreement was reached by Columbia Gas, its parent company NiSource, Eversource Energy, the Department of Energy Resources, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Low-Income Weatherization and Fuel Assistance Program Network.
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