Imagine getting a phone call or turning on the news and finding out that dozens of homes in your hometown were suddenly exploding. Approximately 80 fires have broken out across the community, your neighborhood has been evacuated, and the gas to your home has been shut off indefinitely because it might be the next to blow up.
This isn’t the plot to the next summer blockbuster movie starring The Rock. That nightmare actually happened to the people of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, Massachusetts on September 13.
Leonel Rondon, an 18-year-old high school student, died in the Merrimack Valley gas explosions. Dozens of homes were destroyed and businesses shuttered. And more than two months later, thousands of people are still without heat and hot water, or living in temporary housing, and unable to return to their normal lives.
An NTSB report concluded that a series of failures made by Columbia Gas caused these explosions. It’s even more infuriating that this wasn’t the first time Columbia Gas and its parent company NiSource had failed to provide safe gas service to its customers. This is bigger than one mistake – it’s a corporate culture that isn’t focused on safety.
Yesterday, Senator Ed Markey and I held an official Senate hearing on the Merrimack Valley explosions in a middle school gym in Lawrence. I asked the presidents of Columbia Gas and NiSource if they take personal responsibility for the breakdowns that led to this tragedy. Yes, they said.
But two months later, neither of the executives who run Columbia Gas and NiSource have been fired. When I pushed both men as to who exactly had been held accountable, they squirmed and said that the investigation wasn’t complete.
And when I asked – at the bare minimum – if their pay had been reduced from this disaster ($550,000/year for the head of Columbia Gas, and $5 million/year for the head of NiSource), they both squirmed and said they expect not to receive their annual incentive bonus.
Someone died, so these CEOs may not get a bonus this year.
When giant corporations can pay a few million dollars in fines for their fraud or negligence, they consider it a cost of doing business, and go back to life as normal, the system stays rigged for the rich and powerful. Until corporate executives feel the threat of personal accountability – losing their jobs or facing jail time – nothing is going to change.
- That’s why I grilled the CEO of Wells Fargo, pushed for him to be fired, and urged the Federal Reserve to remove 12 Wells Fargo board members after the bank was caught opening millions of fake accounts for its customers. And I’ve introduced the Ending Too Big to Jail Act, so bank executives can be held personally responsible for their banks’ cheating.
- That’s why I called on the executives of Equifax to be held personally responsible after their historic data breach, and I introduced the Data Breach Prevention and Compensation Act to impose massive and mandatory penalties for companies that fail to keep consumers’ data safe.
- That’s why I introduced the Medical Innovation Act, a bill that would require giant pharmaceutical companies that are caught breaking the law – and choose to pay a fine instead of going to trial – to put a portion of their profits back into medical research funding for the National Institutes of Health.
- That’s why I’ve introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act, a bill that would let workers at giant corporations elect at least 40% of board members, and restrict the sales of company shares by corporate executives, so that corporations are working in the long-term interest of their companies and shareholders, not their own personal profits.
- And that’s why I’ve introduced the Truth in Settlements Act, so when federal regulators cut a deal with giant corporations for breaking the law, they are required to disclose all the details of that settlement so the American people can see if they’re being held accountable. No loopholes and sweetheart deals hidden in the fine print.
The purpose of this Merrimack Valley gas explosions hearing wasn’t only to get an apology, or to investigate what happened in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, or to make sure families can safely and quickly return to their homes. All of those things are powerfully important.
But it was also to demand accountability and make sure changes happen to keep the people of Massachusetts safe.
And when industries like this one have proven that safety is not their top priority, then we’ll make sure that the laws and regulations compel them to do what is right.
To the people of Massachusetts who have been hurt by this tragedy, I want to say: Yesterday’s hearing was just a first step. We will keep fighting for you. We will not let up until every last home has heat and hot water, until every last person and business has been compensated and made whole. And then we’re going to fight so that this never happens in another community again.
Local nonprofit organizations in the Merrimack Valley are providing on-the-ground support to the many families that are still unable to return to their homes and businesses, and families living without heat and hot water. On this Giving Tuesday, will you help the charities supporting the gas explosion victims in Massachusetts? Please donate now – even $5 makes a big difference.