Mixed reviews for $80 million gas deal

AMANDA SABGA/Staff photo Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan, flanked by Lawrence Mayor Daniel River, left, and Interim North Andover Town Manager Lyne Savage, speaks during a press conference at the Andover Public Safety center where an $80 million settlement was announced between Columbia Gas and Lawrence, Andover and North Andover to pay for road restoration and municipal claims. 5/7/19

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said the $80 million that Columbia Gas is giving the three communities affected by the gas disaster covers their financial losses, but does not make up for the months of disruption in thousands of victims’ lives.

Rivera said the settlement announced last Tuesday was a “fair deal,” but it falls short of what he expected Lawrence, Andover and North Andover should receive.

The Sept. 13 disaster, caused by over-pressurized gas lines, displaced thousands of residents among the three communities and killed one 18-year-old man from Lawrence. The massive emergency sent several people to local hospitals and damaged some 60 to 100 homes.

“Let’s just say this ($80 million) is right on the line of meeting their responsibility,” Rivera said of Columbia Gas covering the money the communities paid for everything from road repairs after gas pipeline placement to special work by police and firefighters.

Rivera did not specify the dollar amount he expected from the company, but said, “The amount of emotional distress and general displacement of peoples’ lives is something you can’t really put a number on.”

The $80 million settlement is broken down this way: $57.1 million will go toward road restoration, $10 million will go toward expense reimbursement, and $12.8 million will go toward claims and losses incurred by the municipalities.

Lawrence, which was hit the hardest by the gas disasters, will receive $31.9 million of the $57.1 million for road repairs. It will cover the costs taxpayers otherwise would have had to pay.

Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan, however, said the settlement met his expectations. Andover will receive $13.9 million of the $57.1 million for road repairs.

“You always want to get the most out of a negotiation,” he said. “I think we were successful in that regard. Otherwise we wouldn’t have settled. We certainly didn’t take a discount on any component of what needed to be done.”

Flanagan said he identified the costs and the work that needed to be done to restore the roads and make other infrastructure and public facility investments, and set his expectations based on that information.

North Andover will receive $11.3 million of the $57.1 million for road repairs. Lyne Savage, North Andover’s interim town manager, also said the settlement met her expectations.

Savage said the settlement will cover “100 percent” of the cost of the disaster’s effect on North Andover.

“We believe we got everything we needed,” she said. “The value is, how long do you wait before you get a settlement and can finally start the restoration?”

Mark Kempic, newly appointed Columbia Gas of Massachusetts president, told reporters after a press conference held in the Andover Public Safety Center Tuesday afternoon that the company has taken steps to ensure customers have the safest natural gas possible.

He said customers whose homes are on the gas lines impacted by the disasters are now on a brand-new system that has built-in safety features. These safety features include excess flow valves that will prevent the flow of gas if a line is unintentionally struck by digging equipment, as well as individual pressure regulators at each household, said Kempic.

Kempic said across all of Massachusetts, Columbia Gas is installing what is called “over and under pressurization protection devices,” which automatically sense gas pressure and shut off the flow of gas if too high or too low.

“We are changing our practices and our policies to make sure that all risks are identified and so customers will continue to be assured they have the safest natural gas possible,” said Kempic.

Rivera said his expectation is that the company, by law, has to make these changes to ensure safety.

“I don’t want people to think they’re doing something out of the kindness of their heart,” he said. “They have to do that in order to make the pipelines safer.”

Rivera said he has no doubt the breadth, width and speed in which Columbia Gas wants to get this work done has everything to do with the fact that they didn’t meet expectations before the Sept. 13 gas disasters.

The $10 million of the settlement for expense reimbursement — the cost of paying for police, firefighters, public works and other employees for disaster-related work — will be divided into a $5 million share for Lawrence, $3 million for Andover and $2 million for North Andover.

The remainder will be divided up into shares of not more than $6.4 million for Lawrence, $3.85 million for Andover and $2.56 million for North Andover.

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