Merrimack Valley shop owners frustrated with natural gas disaster response

Utility contractors dig up the road above natural gas lines along Brookfield Street in Lawrence last September following the explosions in the Merrimack Valley area serviced by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts.
Utility contractors dig up the road above natural gas lines along Brookfield Street in Lawrence last September following the explosions in the Merrimack Valley area serviced by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts. –Charles Krupa / AP, File

LAWRENCE, Mass. (AP) — More than six months after natural gas explosions rocked Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley, small business owners in the region say they’re still reeling.

Convenience store, grocery and salon owners complained at a forum in Lawrence on Wednesday that the compensation they’ve received from Columbia Gas, the utility company to blame for the Sept. 13 disaster, doesn’t come close to covering their losses. Some said they haven’t been paid at all, despite filing their claims months ago.

“Who’s going to pay for what I lost?,” asked Jose Santos, the owner of Popular Market in Lawrence, who, like many in attendance, said he’s had to take thousands of dollars in loans to keep afloat through months of slow sales.

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Eusebio “Junior” Hernandez, owner of the Hernandez Market in Lawrence, said he received about $25,000 from the utility company to cover initial losses and damages. But business simply hasn’t picked back up in the poor, overwhelmingly Latino city, he said. Hernandez estimates he’s lost thousands of dollars more since December.

And Luis Suazo, owner of Suazo Market in Lawrence, said he borrowed $10,000 to keep his storefront going these last few months, but Columbia Gas only reimbursed him about $3,000. “I’m out about $8,000,” he said. “That’s nothing for a company like Columbia Gas. But that’s everything for my business.”

Columbia Gas, which didn’t have a representative at the meeting, said after that it hopes to work with business owners who voiced concerns Wednesday.

The company is hosting community meetings in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover Saturday where claims representatives will be on hand to work individually with those impacted by the disaster, which has been blamed on over pressurization during a routine pipeline replacement project. One person died, about two dozen were injured, more than 100 structures were damaged and thousands were left without heat and hot water for weeks.

Columbia Gas said just over 800 claims — including about 200 businesses claims — remain active as of this week. The company has paid out nearly $95 million on more than 24,000 claims, of which businesses represented about 2,400 claims worth roughly $29 million.

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Part of the challenge is that many impacted businesses are mom-and-pop operations that lack the proper bookkeeping and accounting, making it hard for them to provide the documentation required in the claims process, said Derek Mitchell, head of the Lawrence Partnership, a nonprofit that’s helping oversee a $10 million fund meant to help area businesses.

Store owners Wednesday questioned how Lawrence was spending its $2 million share. Democratic Mayor Dan Rivera, who wasn’t in attendance Wednesday, said later that his administration is still developing its plan for the money and couldn’t offer a timeline.

“We’re trying to figure out how to put every dollar on the street,” he said of the fund. “We want to make sure this is done right.”

Other larger portions of the $10 million fund, meanwhile, are already paying for broader regional efforts, said Mitchell.

Lowell-based nonprofit “Entrepreneurship For All,” for example, has been contracted to provide technical assistance to local businesses, like basic bookkeeping and accounting, developing marketing plans and navigating the claims process with Columbia Gas. And advertising firm CTP Boston has been tapped to develop a broader regional advertising campaign, Mitchell said.

But Rivera, the Lawrence mayor, agreed with businesses owners that Columbia Gas’ claims process needs improvement.

One solution, he suggested, is to make sure that all or most business owners go through the independent appeals process Columbia Gas has established to make sure they’re getting fairly compensated.

“The other option? They can just cut the checks,” Rivera said. “Every day that they’re not fully funding claims, they’re ruining the lives of business owners.”