About nine months after filing a wrongful death suit against Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, the family of Leonel Rondon has reached a settlement with the utility company said to be responsible for a series of gas explosions and fires north of Boston last September.
While dozens of people were injured and more than 130 buildings were damaged or destroyed in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover on Sept. 13, Rondon was the only fatality in the disaster. A chimney from a nearby house fell onto a parked car the 18 year old occupied.
Terms of the settlement announced on July 9 were not disclosed.
“The family can only hope that this kind of catastrophe will never happen again,” Doug Sheff, the family’s attorney, said in a statement released by Columbia Gas. “Nothing can replace the loss of Leonel and the Rondons will continue to cherish his memory, his loving support and positive impact on his family and community."
Sheff’s said his firm will establish a scholarship fund “designed to encourage an ongoing interest in public safety and community service.” NiSource Inc., the parent company of Columbia Gas, also announced that it will establish a scholarship fund in Rondon’s name that is independent of the settlement.
“We remain heartbroken over the tragic loss of Leonel Rondon and again express our deepest sympathy to his family and to the entire community,” Joe Hamrock, NiSource’s chief executive and president, said in the statement. “We recognize the pain that remains and understand that nothing we can ever say or do will bring Leonel back to his loved ones or erase that pain.”
Columbia also reached an agreement with the state earlier this year to complete outstanding work to replace appliances and to repair roads by Sept. 15. Scott Ferson, a spokesman for Columbia Gas, said 79% of heating equipment replacements are complete. "We are continuing to work with our group of subcontractors to meet that deadline and complete the replacements as efficiently as possible," Ferson said. "In addition, both private property and state highway restoration work is continuing and is on track to be completed by Sept. 15."
Ferson also said Columbia's agreement with Andover, North Andover and Lawrence includes compensating each municipality for their own municipal road restoration work.
Columbia repaired about 45-miles of pipeline and nearly 6,000 service lines and restored gas service in an approximate three-month span after the explosions.
Several other lawsuits against Columbia were reportedly consolidated before an Essex County Superior Court judge. A US attorney’s office probe is also reportedly investigating whether NiSource can be held criminally liable.
Massachusetts has yet to levy fines against Columbia but The Boston Globe reported earlier this year that penalties could reach as high as $209,000 for each violation of federal pipeline safety regulations. The Globe also said Columbia could be fined up to $250,000 for every violation of the company’s emergency response plan and up to $20 million for related violations.
"The cause of the incident is still under investigation," Ferson said, "and we are, and will continue to work cooperatively with those in charge of investigating this matter."
While a full National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has yet to be published, a preliminary report blamed an over-pressurized gas line during a pipeline replacement project. NTBSA has also said that the explosion was the largest U.S. natural gas pipeline incident involving structural damage since 2010, when a gas transmission line ruptured in San Bruno, Calif. The explosions killed eight people, destroyed 38 buildings and damaged another 70.