Baltimore Gas & Electric has for months insisted, to the agitation and despair of residents, that it is relocating regulators to the outside of row houses due to safety concerns.
The gas company says it is following the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board, which has favored external gas regulators — devices that help maintain a set and safe gas pressure – rather than internal ones.
It turns out, under a second federal guidance, the situation may be more nuanced than the gas company is making it to be.
Gas regulators installed on the inside of a home or building can be dangerous if there’s a leak, mainly because the meter is usually installed in the basement area, where the gas can go undetected, according to a statement by the engineering division of the Maryland Public Service Commission. It’s what happened at the Flower Branch apartments in Silver Spring, a building complex that caught fire and exploded in 2016 after a gas leak in the building’s meter room. Seven people died, and 65 residents and three firefighters were injured.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the explosion found a failed regulator and unconnected vent line caused natural gas to build up to explosive levels. It argued that, if the gas regulator had been outside, residents might have been able to report the leak. The findings led the board to recommend in 2019 the change in installations to outside of multifamily dwellings and Maryland legislators to enact the Flower Branch Act in 2021. Neither the guidance nor state law required that of single-family homes and row houses.
BGE is planning to replace over 11,200 indoor gas regulators by the end of 2031 at the cost of approximately $105 million, all to comply with the state law.
But, in an advisory bulletin a year later, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration under the U.S. Department of Transportation said gas companies “should evaluate each service installation to determine the appropriate location of the service regulators.”
In other words, as one BGE employee said in a community meeting, safety isn’t absolute. And outdoor regulators might not always be the best option, others say.
The Federal Pipeline Safety Regulations ... require that each meter and service regulator, whether inside or outside a building, must be installed in a readily accessible location and be protected from corrosion and other damage, including vehicular damage. For regulators located inside a building, each service regulator must be located as near as practical to the point of service line entrance. Each meter must be located in a ventilated place and not less than 3 feet from any source of ignition or any source of heat that might damage the meter.”— Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
“Our concern is that BGE is not giving each residential building the assessment that each building should have,” said David Lapp, the state’s People’s Counsel. “It does not mean that every household will get the answer they want, but the protocol should be transparent and not arbitrary.
“The individual circumstances need to be evaluated to determine the safest option, and outside might not be the safest option if there’s a risk of forced damage, like vehicular damage,” he added.
That has been the main concern for residents in contentious meetings with BGE — that something, such as a car or a scooter, will hit the external gas regulators on their homes, particularly when the sidewalks in their neighborhood are narrow. Federal data shows that outside forces, such as a car colliding with the gas infrastructure and excavation, were the primary causes of serious gas accidents in general from 2005 to 2012. Equipment failure was much rarer. But at the same time, Lapp said, first responders can access outside regulators much more easily in case of emergencies.
In a statement to The Baltimore Banner, BGE said moving regulators outdoors will provide “more reliable and resilient service to residents.”
“When gas mains are upgraded to higher pressures, BGE needs to install a regulator to reduce the service pressure to a level that can be used by the customer’s equipment,” it said. “This work is occurring at single family homes because the service at those homes is being upgraded.”
BGE did not answer multiple other questions on its internal policy and strategy, including:
- What data it is using to assess safety comparisons between external and internal gas regulators
- Whether BGE is taking into consideration the guidance from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
- How it is planning on addressing the risk of car collisions
- Whether this project will result in a monthly surcharge to customers
The Public Service Commission’s engineering division has provided guidance, which came from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, to BGE on how to protect external regulators from car collisions. So far, residents say the gas company has not said how it is planning to protect regulators from vehicular damages in community meetings.
BGE has provided some solutions to bringing attention to regulators so they are clearly visible, including painting them pink to resemble a flamingo or putting a flower pot or bench in front of them.
Contractors have been knocking on people’s doors in South and Southeast Baltimore for the past few months, saying they will shut down service if residents refuse the installation. In a contentious community meeting in May, Fells Point and Federal Hill residents asked BGE employees to connect them with people in charge of the replacement project.
Residents and BGE recently met again, said Kate Simms, president of Fells Point Residents Association. She said the utility company repeatedly pointed residents to federal guidelines — not to safety data.
The gas company has said in meetings with residents and through statements that external gas regulators are safer, but it declined to provide operational data “due to security reasons.”
“Numerous examples in the public record have shown that when natural gas leaks into an enclosed space, like a basement, it can accumulate and become a severe problem,” Talon Sachs, a spokesperson for the gas company, said in a statement. “Natural gas is only explosive within a specific range of gas/air concentrations; however, hazardous events are less likely when natural gas is released outside because the gas can dissipate into the atmosphere.”
When asked, Sachs did not provide details about the “numerous examples.”
Simms said BGE is resorting to a “scare tactic,” rather than engaging with the community in transparency. Some residents and energy advocates are skeptical, asking if the policy is profit driven.
“Are they making more money on the outside?” a resident asked in a community meeting in May. “Is it possible that there’s some incentive in the way they’re pushing the story that corresponds to a higher profitability doing them on the outside? I don’t know the answer. I’m just asking the question.”
BGE representatives were adamant that is not the case.
“It is a safety concern for BGE. I do not want you to think that BGE is a company that is focused on profit. I understand that it may be funny, but this is true,” said Allyson Black, chief of staff to the chief customer officer at BGE, drawing laughter across the room during the recent community meeting.
Lapp said the gas regulator replacement project is part of a larger push called the Strategic Infrastructure Development and Enhancement Plan, or STRIDE, a major program that is “very costly to customers.”
The plan encourages “gas utilities to replace certain aging gas infrastructure by allowing for accelerated recovery of infrastructure investment costs,” according to the Office of People’s Counsel website. It allows gas companies to add a monthly surcharge on customer bills to recover the estimated costs of ongoing infrastructure projects, which “gives the utility an easier and faster method of recovering its infrastructure costs from customers,” according to the website.
STRIDE is the single largest category of the gas company’s infrastructure spending and it also represents the company’s largest category of investment for process, Lapp said. That is, the gas regulator replacement project is how the gas company will secure money in the future.
BGE will be replacing aging gas infrastructure until around 2043, Lapp said, and the costs will reflect on utility bills. Customers will likely be paying off the plan until after 2084, according to a report by the Office of People’s Counsel. And, as more people shift from gas to electric, the burden will be spread among fewer customers, which will drive up rates to those who already can’t afford to shift services.
Lapp said the gas company should be focusing on electrification, which is a safer, cost-effective solution for residential customers that also coincides with the state’s climate goals.
“What they are doing is spending as much as they can, as fast as they can,” Lapp said.