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Lawmakers question NiSource utility over bills sent months after explosions

Four members of Massachusetts' congressional delegation demanded answers from Columbia Gas of Massachusetts for backdated customer bills sent out months after a deadly series of explosions and fires.

Columbia Gas customers are receiving bills that include more than just recent gas use, which could strain households that have already been under stress in the months following the Sept. 13 blasts that left one person dead, at least 21 people injured and 131 structures damaged, the two senators and two Congress members wrote Jan. 15.

Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Reps. Seth Moulton and Lori Trahan in a letter to Columbia Gas and parent company NiSource Inc. objected to the way the utility had handled charging customers and communicating with them about their bills. "[C]onsumers are now receiving large backdated bills just after the holiday season and during the more expensive winter heating months," the Democratic lawmakers wrote.

"We are especially disturbed by the reported lack of communication between your company and customers that would have alerted them that these backdated bills would be forthcoming or presented clear options to engage in deferred payment or payment plans over time," they wrote.

Billing has resumed for customers whose gas appliances were not repaired or replaced in the wake of the explosions and fires but whose service was turned off as a precaution, according to Columbia Gas, formally known as Bay State Gas Co. The utility delayed billing all customers in the affected area while it worked on restoration efforts, and bills issued in January could include any balances that existed before the explosions, the company said.

"We sincerely apologize for the confusion this may have caused, and recognize we missed an opportunity to communicate with you better. In addition to the restoration credit, we are offering flexible payment options," Columbia Gas said on its website.

The lawmakers said that while they welcome the flexibility, they want to know whether the utility had at any time told customers that they would receive backdated bills and how the company is informing customers of their options.

The letter also asked that Columbia Gas suspend its normal annual winter rate increase for the service territory affected by the explosions. "At a time when families are often stretching budgets to cover holiday expenses and higher bills, an unexpected bill of hundreds of dollars can come as an unwelcome devastating surprise," the letter said.