December 19, 2018

The Eagle Tribune: Justice for the Merrimack Valley starts with real accountability

The Merrimack Valley gas explosions that occurred this past September were among the most horrific disasters Massachusetts has ever seen.
Leonel Rondon, an 18-year-old high school student from Lawrence, tragically lost his life. Dozens of homes and businesses were destroyed, and thousands of people were stuck without heat and water in their homes for months.
We saw firsthand the devastation these gas explosions caused across these communities. These explosions were a terrible tragedy, but that doesn’t mean they were an unavoidable or unforeseeable accident.
An interim National Transportation Safety Board report found that executives at Columbia Gas and its parent company NiSource made a series of dangerous mistakes that led directly to the explosions. The report, along with hundreds of pages of company policies that we reviewed in our investigation, suggest that a pervasive culture of disregard for basic safety precautions at Columbia Gas was ultimately to blame.
We recently held an official Senate hearing at the South Lawrence East Middle School. We called two executives from Columbia Gas and NiSource to testify and explain the decisions that led to this tragedy.
When pressed, the executives agreed to take personal responsibility for their failures. They also agreed—after some pushback—to stick to their latest deadline for restoring heat and power to Massachusetts residents.
But neither of them could answer one question: why, if they were personally responsible for the death of one innocent teenager and the destruction of dozens of homes and businesses, were they still on track to make a combined $5.5 million dollars in total compensation pay this year?
It turns out their pay hadn’t been reduced by one cent. They told us they probably won’t get their annual incentive bonuses. That’s the only consequence they expect to face.
No bonuses? An innocent life lost, homes destroyed, families freezing, millions of dollars in damage, and that’s the only consequence? So, no big fat checks for them this year ... except, of course, for the checks that come as part of their combined, multi-million dollar annual compensation package. Apparently, they get those for picking savings over safety.
The problems that led to the Columbia Gas explosions are the same problems that led companies like Wells Fargo and Equifax to scam and cheat their customers.
They’re the same problems that led the big banks to tank the economy in 2008. And they’re the same problems that led to the BP Deepwater oil spill in 2010.
The problems boil down to one simple fact: corporations and their CEOs face too little accountability for actions that harm people. And as long as that remains true, consumers will get the short end of the stick.
As long as we continue to allow giant corporations to brush off fines and hire armies of highly paid lawyers to fight their battles, working families will suffer.
Corporations will continue treating slaps on the wrist as a cost of doing business, rigging the system to line their own pockets.
Every so often, corporate executives won’t get their holiday bonuses.
But if we don’t truly hold them accountable, at some point, all of us are likely to experience what the people of the Merrimack Valley are going through right now: the experience of being left to pick up the pieces of a disaster you did nothing to create.
We held the hearing in Lawrence for a number of reasons. We wanted an apology. We wanted answers. We wanted to find out what steps we could take to prevent a similar disaster from happening anywhere else, ever again.
And we wanted to put pressure on the executives to restore heat and power to communities in the Merrimack Valley immediately.
But we also wanted accountability. We wanted to get face to face with the two men responsible for this disaster, and demand change to protect Massachusetts.
Communities come together in times of need, and the Merrimack Valley is no exception. On the day of the explosion, first responders went above and beyond the call of duty to save lives, save property, and provide shelter to people who were displaced. Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan, and North Andover Town Manager Andrew Maylor showed incredible and tireless leadership throughout this difficult time. In the months that followed, residents of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover rallied around each other, sharing their clothes, their food, and their homes.
Local non-profit organizations have been there every step of the way for people affected by the gas explosions, but our work to heal the Merrimack Valley won’t be finished until every family has been made 100 percent financially whole and fully compensated for every bit of injury and inconvenience.
That’s where we — the advocates for Massachusetts in the United States Senate — come in. We’re banging down doors here in Washington, D.C., calling on the Trump administration, Columbia Gas, and NiSource to deliver solutions for the Merrimack Valley. We’re fighting to turn the lessons we’ve learned into laws, in order to protect other communities in the commonwealth and around the country.
We're not going to stop until we get real accountability for the people responsible for this crisis.
Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey are the U.S. senators from Massachusetts.

By:  Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey
Source: The Eagle Tribune