The Office of the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts announced Wednesday that Columbia Gas will pay the largest criminal fine ever imposed for breaking a federal pipeline safety law. The utility pleaded guilty in federal court in connection with tragic gas, fires and explosions in the Merrimack Valley in September of 2018, WGBH News' Craig Lemoult has been reporting on the fires since then spoke with All Things Considered host Arun Rath after the announcement. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Arun Rath: So, for people who were there it's fresh in their memory, but for the rest of us remind us what happened that awful day.

Craig Lemoult: Well, workers for a contractor for Columbia Gas were replacing a gas line in Lawrence. The NTSB later found that the company failed to account for these critical pressure sensors in these underground control lines and that caused this high pressure gas to flood the whole neighborhoods distribution system in Lawrence and over in North Andover. In announcing today's guilty plea and settlement, U.S. Attorney Andrew Gehling said Clemmie Gas showed what he called a pattern of flagrant indifference in the face of extreme risk instead of reliable, centralized procedures for keeping track of the location of compte underground control lines.

The resulting explosions and the fires killed one person in Lawrence, caused three homes to blow up and damaged more than 130 buildings. Also injured nearly two dozen people. And, of course, thousands of people were displaced from their homes for months.

Arun Rath: And in addition to this, $53 million fine. Could you explain this part of the ruling? Break this down. The Columbia gas has basically done in Massachusetts, right?

Lemoult: That is right. As part of the agreement, NiSource, which is Clemmie Gases parent company, agreed to sell the utility and stop all of its gas pipeline operations in the state. Any profits from the sale of that company will go to a federal fund that provides services to victims of federal crimes. Until Columbia's gas is sold, an independent monitor is going to ensure the company is following state and federal laws.

Rath: What does Columbia Gas have to say about this?

Lemoult: In a statement, a spokesperson said the company takes full responsibility for the tragedy and that today's resolution with the U.S. attorney's office is an important part of addressing the impact. For now, while they're still providing service, they said their focus remains on enhancing safety and regaining gaining the trust of their customers and ensuring that they're offering quality service.

Rath: Now, you are heard from Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera about this today. What did he have to say yet?

Lemoult: Rivera's actually been calling for Columbia Gas to be kicked out of the state practically since the tragedy happened. And given that, though, his reaction to it was actually pretty muted.

Rivera did say he thought instead of any profits from the sale of the company going to a federal fund for crime victims, he thought that money should go to victims right here in Lawrence.

Rath: And those victims are part of a 143 million dollar class action settlement, right?

Lemoult: Yeah. And actually, a federal judge is scheduled to rule tomorrow on the details of that settlement. Rivera actually said he's not happy with where that settlement set up right now. He said to much of the money is going to attorneys and that there's an onerous and bureaucratic system for those victims to apply for those funds when there's already been a whole application process that they've gone through. He said he hopes that the judge agrees with that and tries to rectify it.