Utility to pay $53M for blasts that damaged homes, killed 1

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FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2018 file image from video provided by WCVB in Boston, flames consume the roof of a home following an explosion in Lawrence, Mass. The U.S. Attorney's office in Boston announced Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, that Columbia Gas Columbia agreed to plead guilty to violating the Pipeline Safety Act following an investigation into the catastrophic gas explosions. (WCVB via AP, File)

BOSTON, Mass. – A utility company will pay the largest criminal fine ever imposed for breaking a federal pipeline safety law — $53 million — and plead guilty to causing a series of natural gas explosions in Massachusetts that killed one person and damaged dozens of homes, federal officials said Wednesday.

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has agreed to plead guilty to violating the Pipeline Safety Act and pay the fine to resolve a federal investigation into the explosions that rocked three communities in the Merrimack Valley, north of Boston, in September 2018.

"Today’s settlement is a sobering reminder that if you decide to put profits before public safety, you will pay the consequences," FBI Agent Joseph Bonavolonta said.

The company said in an emailed statement that it takes full responsibility for the disaster.

“Today’s resolution with the U.S. Attorney’s Office is an important part of addressing the impact," the company wrote. “Our focus remains on enhancing safety, regaining the trust of our customers and ensuring that quality service is delivered.”

The company's parent, Merrillville, Indiana-based NiSource Inc., also to sell the company and cease any gas pipeline and distribution activities in Massachusetts. Any profit from the sale of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts will be handed over to the federal government.

Eversource announced later Wednesday that it has agreed to buy the company's natural gas assets in Massachusetts for $1.1 billion.

"We knew that one of the things those communities wanted was for Columbia Gas to simply go away," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling told reporters. “The tragedy was to such an extent that it would be extremely difficult for the populations in those towns to trust this company going forward, so that was one of our priorities when we struck this deal,” he said.