Gas Explosions

As Steve Bryant, left, the president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts looks on, Joe Hamrock, right, president and CEO of NiSource, speaks to U.S. Senators and Representatives during a hearing Monday on gas pipeline safety in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts.

Several members of Congress called Monday for executives of Merrillville-based NiSource to step down, as inquiries continue into the September natural gas explosions and fires in Massachusetts that killed one person, injured dozens more and damaged more than 100 homes in the communities of Lawrence, North Andover and Andover.

Six House and Senate members from Massachusetts and New Hampshire held a hearing in Lawrence where they took aim at the corporate culture at Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, a NiSource subsidiary.

They painted a picture of a corporation that cut corners and lacked the internal procedures to prevent, let alone respond to, the Sept. 13 disaster. Columbia Gas and NiSource face federal and state investigations as well as class action lawsuits regarding the disaster.

The National Transportation Safety Board has said that the company's failure to account for pressure sensors in planning a routine pipeline replacement project in Lawrence led to the explosions and fires.

"At every step of the process, there was a chance to avoid this disaster," said U.S. Sen. Ed Markey to company executives. "Instead of choosing safety, you chose savings. Instead of choosing to do things the right way, you chose to do things the easy way and the result was disaster."

Joseph Hamrock, CEO of NiSource, and Steve Bryant, the president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, said the company was taking steps to assure another disaster doesn't happen.

That includes adopting many of the initial recommendations from the safety board, such as having a professional engineer sign off on projects before any work starts.

In a statement responding to NTSB recommendations made earlier this month, NiSource said company-wide measures, which include NIPSCO's territory, will include "an approximately $150 million program to install over-pressurization protection devices on all our low-pressure systems."

NiSource compared the devices to circuit-breakers that shut down gas to the system when pressure is too high or low. The program will also include installation of remote monitoring devices on all low-pressure systems so that gas control centers have an ability to monitor pressure in real time.

At Monday's hearing, Hamrock and Bryant said they'd also be seeking to forgo certain incentives in their salaries, which total roughly $5 million and more than $500,000, respectively.

But panel members weren't moved.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, pushed the executives to disclose if anyone had been fired as a result of the disaster, noting the company has been responsible for a number of gas leak incidents in Massachusetts in recent years.

Hamrock demurred, saying that the company would "take all appropriate actions" once the ongoing review into the incident is complete.

The sister of the teenager who was the lone fatality in the disaster opened the lengthy hearing with tearful testimony, saying her family seeks justice for her brother and their community.

"We will not let this loss be without meaning," said Lucianny Rondon, the sister of 18-year-old Leonel Rondon, who was killed when a chimney toppled by the explosions landed on his parked vehicle. "Nobody should ever have to go through what my family has gone through ever again."

Times staff contributed to this report.