Utility Liability for Natural Gas Explosions

Utility Liability for Natural Gas Explosions

In Massachusetts this past September it was over-pressurization of a gas main that caused the blast which killed one person, injured 25, and destroyed many homes and businesses in Lawrence, Andover, North Andover and other Merrimack Valley communities.

 

This dangerous situation has happened too many times before.  In San Bruno, California in 2014 a massive gas explosion killed 8 people and injured 66.  The gas utility company was found to have been grossly negligent in maintaining its gas delivery infrastructure.

 

In Springfield, Massachusetts in 2013, Columbia Gas negligently punctured a gas line, causing an explosion that damaged commercial and residential buildings and injured 18 people.  In the immediate aftermath of this incident, Columbia Gas claimed it had reviewed its safety procedures, and said it was an isolated incident.  The company was forced to pay for the property damage and personal injuries caused by the natural gas explosion.

 

In the most recent Massachusetts situation, Columbia Gas may not be the only responsible party.  Columbia Gas has a corporate parent that is also being investigated.   A review of public records and court filings shows that Columbia Gas is the business name of Bay State Gas Company, and is a wholly owned subsidiary of NiSource, a publicly traded company based in Merrillville, Indiana incorporated in 1974.  NiSource has been linked to at least three similar gas line explosions over the last six years, including the Springfield, Massachusetts explosion noted above.

Utility companies such as Columbia Gas and its parent, NiSource, are under a legal obligation to their customers and the general public to ensure that their services, delivery systems and infrastructure are reasonable and safe.  Given the volatile and combustible nature of natural gas, and the potential for fatalities and catastrophic damage if improperly handled, the need for safety and oversight is heightened.

The investigation of this most recent Merrimack Valley gas explosion indicates that the gas lines in that area were over pressurized, causing the massive explosion.  This is from the New York Times on October 12, 2018:

“A faulty plan to replace aging gas pipes caused sudden explosions and fires in three towns north of Boston last month that killed one person and drove thousands from their homes, the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.

Before the accident, on the afternoon of Sept. 13, a crew contracted by Columbia Gas was working on upgrading the natural gas distribution system in south Lawrence. The company had approved the plan to replace century-old, cast-iron pipes, which had sensors to monitor pressure.

But disconnecting the old system disabled the gauges, and the full flow of high-pressure gas into the system — without an accurate read of how high it was — caused the explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.

The agency’s report, which is preliminary as the investigation continues, places the blame squarely with the company.”

 

This appears to be a clear case of negligence on the part of Columbia Gas and its parent company, NiSource, subjecting them to liability.

Those affected by the blasts would be entitled to claims for wrongful death, personal injury, business losses and disruption, property damage, and other claims, which may include switching to an alternative fuel system such as oil heat.