Nov. 29–What happens now? Now that the spectacle of a U.S. Senate committee hearing has come and gone from the South Lawrence East Middle School.
Now that Sen. Elizabeth Warren put the presidents of Columbia Gas and its parent company, NiSource, on the spot, demanding they own up to their annual salaries ($550,000 and $5 million, respectively), and the fact that neither faces a personal financial loss because of the Sept. 13 gas disaster in the Merrimack Valley.
Now that Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera has demanded that the gas utility behind the disaster be disbanded: “I’m not sure how you do it — revoke their licenses, make them sell their business to someone else — it doesn’t matter how you do it,” he told the congressional panel Monday morning.
Now that U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Salem, at least extracted from NiSource CEO Joe Hamrock the total cost of the disaster, on the order of $800 million, even if Hamrock wouldn’t promise to sacrifice his company’s profits toward the recovery effort.
Now that the family of Leonel Rondon, killed when a house exploded and toppled onto the car he was sitting in, spoke out publicly to describe their “unbearable” grief. “We will never forget him,” said his sister, Lucianny.
Now that this week’s hearing has come and gone — and presumably shed some light on the reasons why dozens more were injured, and homes were destroyed, and thousands of people were left without heat and hot water — those directly and indirectly affected by the gas disaster are left to wonder, what happens next?
If Monday’s meeting of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation elicited anything tangible, it was the reiterated promise from Columbia Gas that natural gas service will be restored by mid-December to all families and businesses in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. That presumably includes the 1,178 families lodged in temporary housing at the start of this week. But that was pretty much the extent of the promises.
When Rep. Niki Tsongas pressed Hamrock for assurance that costs borne by his company would not be tacked onto gas bills, he demurred: “I’m not in a position to make such a commitment. We’ve not spent any time focusing on that question.”
While Hamrock talked of taking responsibility for what happened — and Columbia Gas President Steve Bryant said he would carry the Rondon’s death with him for the rest of his life — the outcome of Monday’s haring was unsatisfying. In the end, it was little more than political theater.
We know — because the National Transportation Safety Board already told us — that slipshod engineering work and a lack of oversight were behind the mishap that led to a build-up of pressure in gas lines last September. We know, because the NTSB has urged, an intense regulatory focus on how plans are drawn in the future, and how utility repairs are made. That’s important not just in the Merrimack Valley but throughout Massachusetts and the rest of the country.
We also know that Columbia Gas and NiSource must be held to account — and a number of lawsuits in the works surely will do so.
But, at day’s end, as satisfying as it may have been to see elected leaders confronting the heads of the company responsible for so much pain and disruption, the most telling gesture Monday was probably the fact that Hamrock and Bryant, once their testimony had been delivered, did not stick around to hear what others had to say.
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