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Eversource exec says restoring trust top priority following Columbia Gas purchase

Boston Herald logo Boston Herald 2/27/2020 Stefan Geller
a man wearing a suit and tie: (2/27/20) Bill Akley, eversourceÕs President of gas operations courtesy photo © Provided by Boston Herald (2/27/20) Bill Akley, eversourceÕs President of gas operations courtesy photo

As Eversource Energy prepares to take the reins from the company responsible for the deadly 2018 Merrimack Valley gas explosions, one of its top executives said that restoring the public’s trust through improved engagement and transparency is its top priority.

“These folks have been through a horrific set of events,” said Bill Akley, Eversource’s president of gas operations. “The people who we will serve are very concerned and will remain concerned until we deliver. But we have a very capable and qualified team at Eversource, and we are up to that challenge.”

Columbia Gas was forced to sell the company on Wednesday — in addition to being slammed with a $53 million fine — after it agreed to plead guilty to a safety violation charge stemming from the explosions that ripped through Lawrence, Andover and North Andover two years ago, killing a teenager, seriously injuring 23 others and damaging 131 buildings.

Eversource announced Wednesday that it had reached an agreement to purchase the Massachusetts natural gas assets of Columbia Gas for $1.1 billion from NiSource.

The acquisition will bring Columbia Gas operations in Massachusetts under local ownership by the largest energy company in New England.

Still, Akley said that because the community continues to wrestle with the trauma from those events, the process to restore the public’s trust, specifically among the people who lived in the blast zone, will be drawn-out and will hinge on Eversource demonstrating the right focus and attention to the community.

“We will have to, day after day, demonstrate that we are focused on the right things and that our service delivery matches up to what they expect,” Akley said. “No words will shift that dial.”

Both companies expect the transaction to close by the end of the third quarter of 2020, though it still requires approval from the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities and the U.S. Justice Department.

Eversouce will also be giving jobs to the Columbia Gas employees “on terms and conditions that are similar to those applied to our own workforce,” Akley said, though he couldn’t determine exactly how many due to the deal not being finalized.

When they do hire the former Columbia Gas employees, Akley said that renewed training and Eversource’s procedures and work ethic will play a key role in preventing their previous company culture from transferring over.

“I think we’ll come in and hopefully have employees looking for guidance and direction, and our leadership will be there to provide that,” Akley said. “Transparency, safety and reliability and rebuilding trust above all will be our priority.”

A spokeswoman for Eversource said roughly 700 employees worked in the region.

Federal authorities did not prosecute any individual employees of Columbia Gas, as U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling called the workers “well-meaning people” working in a “complete organizational failure.”

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