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Columbia Gas has agreed to another financial settlement to compensate victims of last year's natural gas explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley.
The agreement calls for the utility to pay $143 million to cover all of the class-action lawsuits against the company stemming from a series of explosions that were caused by over-pressurized gas lines.
The utility and its parent company, NiSource Inc., announced the settlement Monday. It applies to thousands of businesses and residents in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover that had sued Columbia.
“What happened last September was tragic, and we will always be mindful of its impact on our customers and everyone in the communities we serve, including those represented by this settlement,” Joe Hamrock, CEO and president of NiSource, said in a statement. “Today marks another important step forward, as we continue to fulfill our commitment to residents and businesses."
The settlement can cover physical damage and intangibles such as emotional suffering. Anyone who lived or owned a business in the three affected communities may be eligible to claim a share. That's a potential for more than 150,000 parties, meaning many of slices of the pie. And, the sum of the $143 million given out to victims will undoubtedly be reduced by legal fees.
A court's signoff, which is required, is likely months away — hopefully coming by the end of the year, lawyers for the plaintiffs say. Then, settlement money will be placed in a fund, and residents and business owners in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover will have to apply for their shares.
“To this day, the people most impacted by the explosions are not fully back on their feet, but we believe this settlement is the quickest and most just method to ensure that residents and businesses are made whole again,” Elizabeth Graham, co-lead counsel for plaintiffs, said in a statement.
Joe Bevilacqua, who heads the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, says businesses haven't been counting on this class action settlement to bail them out.
"They obviously understood that at some point in time there would be some opportunity for financial remuneration, but many of them have actually just been working through it," he said.
The company says it has dedicated $1 billion total "to address the needs of the affected customers, residents and communities" in the wake of the Sept. 13, 2018, explosions.
Previous settlement money has been used to restore homes and businesses, install new appliances and provide temporary housing for residents, the utility says.
It has already paid out $80 million to impacted municipalities and individual settlements to two families. One of the families lost a teenager, and several members of the other were injured in the explosions.
With reporting from WBUR's Newscast Unit and The Associated Press
This segment aired on July 29, 2019.
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