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Columbia Gas Will Pay $143 Million To Residents, Businesses Impacted By Merrimack Valley Explosions

LAWRENCE (CBS) – Columbia Gas announced Monday it has reached a $143 million settlement with those affected by last fall's Merrimack Valley explosions, resolving all class action lawsuits filed by residents and businesses.

"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," said Joe Hamrock, CEO and President of parent company NiSource, in a statement. "Today marks another important step forward, as we continue to fulfill our commitment to residents and businesses."

The Sept. 13, 2018 explosions, blamed on over-pressurization during a pipeline replacement project, left one dead, dozens injured and damaged more than 100 structures. Thousands of people in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover went without heat and hot water for months.

Soto house, Merrimack Valley explosions
The Soto family's Lawrence home burned in the September 2018 explosions. (WBZ-TV)

"We believe this settlement will do the most good for the greatest number of affected people and businesses, as quickly as possible," said the plaintiffs' co-lead counsel, John Roddy of Bailey & Glasser, in a statement.

Lawyers have promised a simple and straightforward claims process that will be supervised by the court. Residents and businesses will still be able to seek compensation through the ongoing Columbia Gas-managed claims process.

"Residents will be entitled to recover compensation for the displacement and disruption of their lives the catastrophe caused, and property damage not previously paid for by Columbia Gas," plaintiffs said in a statement. "Businesses will be able to claim lost income, lost inventory and the loss of goodwill."

Every person and every business in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover is eligible to get compensation. Even if you haven't filed a claim you can still apply for this settlement.

Carlos Alba says business is down 60 percent at his cake shop since the September gas explosions. "Everybody has a business in this area. We need help," Alba said. "There was no business for months. You need to pay rent, electric, insurance, tax I need help."

He says construction to fix the gas lines has made his side of Lawrence a ghost town, even causing some of his neighbors to close up shop. "Everything is super slow," Alba said. "The traffic is terrible. The streets are in very bad condition."

Everyone will not get an even slice of the settlement, instead, an independent administrator will divide people and businesses up into zones based on how severely affected they were and then distribute the money accordingly.

Merrimack Valley Explosions
Columbia Gas crews repairing damaged lines in Lawrence (WBZ-TV)

Lawyers say the settlement is the best bet to avoid a lengthy trial. "We will do our best, with the help of the administrator and the mediators, to make sure we are treating everybody in a fair and equal manner," Attorney John Roddy said.

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera's response to the settlement was cautious.

"I know a settlement like this is good for CG, because it gets to close out all of those claims in the lawsuit. The question is: after the attorneys take their cut, how much are residents and businesses really left with?" Rivera said in a statement. "My hope is that the people and businesses in these class action lawsuits are truly being made whole and not being victimized yet again."

For Carlos Alba, anything to get business back on its feet is welcome.

"I understand that Columbia Gas needs time to fix everything," Alba said. "It's not magic."

In May, Columbia Gas reached a separate $80 million with the three affected communities for infrastructure improvements. The family of Leonel Rondon, the 18-year-old killed in the explosions, reached a settlement with Columbia Gas earlier this month.

A judge still needs to give final approval to the settlement.

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