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Lawsuit filed against gas company after Massachusetts blasts

Last Updated Sep 18, 2018 at 8:20 pm EST

FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2018, file photo, firefighters battle a house fire on Herrick Road in North Andover, Mass., one of multiple emergency crews responding to a series of gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. The pressure in natural gas pipelines prior to a series of explosions and fires in Massachusetts last week was 12 times higher than it should have been. The information was in a letter from the state's U.S. senators to the heads of Columbia Gas and NiSource. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm, File)

BOSTON – Lawyers filed a class action lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of people who were forced out of their homes for days when dozens of natural gas explosions and fires ripped through three Massachusetts towns.

The lawsuit is the first of what’s likely to be several filed against Columbia Gas and its parent company over Thursday’s explosions , which killed one person and injured more than two dozen in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.

It accuses the utility companies of negligence and seeks compensation for residents of who had to evacuate but didn’t suffer injuries or damage to their homes.

Frank Petosa, one of the attorneys who brought the case, said although families were allowed to return to their homes on Sunday, they still don’t have gas or hot water and must live in fear that the explosions could happen again.

“These individuals have had their lives turned upside down,” said Petosa, of Morgan & Morgan.

Columbia Gas officials didn’t immediately respond to an email on Tuesday.

About 8,600 customers were affected by the explosions. Many had to evacuate their homes for days and may have to go without gas service for weeks.

A letter sent by the state’s U.S. senators to executives at Columbia Gas and its parent company, NiSource, on Monday said the pressure in natural gas pipelines was 12 times higher than it should have been.

“The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has reported that the pressure in the Columbia Gas system should have been around 0.5 pounds per square inch (PSI), but readings in the area reached at least 6 PSI — twelve times higher than the system was intended to hold,” the letter said.

The pressure spike registered in a Columbia Gas control room in Ohio, the senators said in the letter, which requests a reply by Wednesday.

“We write to request that you provide us with information in order to help the American people understand why this terrible disaster occurred, whether the company was sufficiently prepared to respond to an incident of this magnitude, and how we can prevent any similar tragedy in the future,” the senators wrote.

The explosions are under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Chairman Robert Sumwalt has said the investigation is partially focused on pressure sensors that were connected to a gas line that was being taken out of service shortly before the blasts.

On Tuesday, Columbia Gas President Stephen Bryant announced that the utility is donating $10 million to an emergency relief fund for people affected by the emergency.

The Greater Lawrence Disaster Relief Fund will help residents of the three communities with food, housing and other short-term needs as they recover, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, who has been highly critical of Columbia Gas, said the utility is “living up to their corporate responsibility” with the donation.

Also Tuesday, Moody’s Investor’s Service said the explosions and fires are likely to damage the finances of Columbia Gas and its parent company.

The Wall Street credit rating firm said the disaster was “credit negative” for Columbia and NiSource Inc., and may cause “the deterioration of each company’s financial position.”

U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday sent letters to Columbia Gas and Eversource Energy – another utility in charge of recovery efforts – asking for more details about how residents have been notified that it’s safe for them to be receiving gas and whether the companies are maintaining a database and map of homes and buildings that have been inspected.

The Massachusetts Democrats said there has been widespread confusion about whose homes were affected by the incident.

U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, a member of the House Subcommittee on National Security, is calling for a congressional hearing into gas pipeline safety nationwide, pointing to the natural gas explosions in Massachusetts and in western Pennsylvania.

An estimated 650 pipeline incidents last year caused 20 fatalities and 35 injuries, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Massachusetts Democrat said. This year pipeline incidents have caused at least three deaths and 33 injuries.

Lynch said the vulnerability of residents living near pipelines is even more worrisome given the aging state of pipeline infrastructure.