Baltimore City Circuit Court has issued a 10-day restraining order against Baltimore Gas and Electric Company, siding with residents who have said the utility company does not have the legal grounds to terminate gas service.
In turn BGE said it would stop installation of external gas regulators, which required service to be temporarily turned off, and that the utility had begun installing amid opposition from residents of several neighborhoods
It is the latest chapter in a monthslong saga between the utility company and residents who have called out BGE for its project to replace more than 11,200 indoor gas regulators with external ones by the end of 2031. The devices help maintain a set and safe gas pressure.
Residents, who have said the company lacked transparency, are worried about the safety of external regulators in their communities of mostly historic rowhomes, citing concerns of cars and scooters crashing into the equipment. Vehicular damage is a primary cause of serious gas accidents, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration under the U.S. Department of Transportation.
BGE spokesperson Talon Sachs said in a statement Wednesday evening that the Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities and oversees BGE, has reviewed and approved the gas regulator replacement project and that it is “in accordance with applicable laws, regulations, and BGE standards.”
“BGE continues to believe that this work is in the best interest of our customers’ and communities’ safety,” the statement read. “BGE, however, will comply with the Court’s decision and will not continue the installation of external gas regulators unless directed otherwise by the Maryland Public Service Commission.”
The utility company has repeatedly said that it is following the Flower Branch Act, which calls for the installation of external regulators in multifamily dwellings after a explosion in an apartment complex in 2016 killed seven people. BGE has not responded to The Baltimore Banner’s questions on whether they are considering the guidance from Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which calls on utility companies to “evaluate each service installation to determine the appropriate location of the service regulators.”
While BGE has stressed that this relocation project is a matter of safety, the company said during the 2020 hearing for the Flower Branch Act that “densely populated areas such as Baltimore city” do not often provide “appropriate” space for outside meters or regulators. Thiru Vignarajah, the former Maryland deputy attorney general who is representing at least eight neighborhood residents, said if BGE has the safety data that shows that external regulators are safer, the utility company needs to make the argument to the state.
For now, he said, BGE should not terminate the services of residents. In a courtroom Wednesday packed with people supporting the residents, Vignarajah told the court that BGE had taken an unprecedented step of turning the gas tariff, a state-approved contract between the utility company and customers, “into a weapon” to coerce residents. He called the move a “breach of contract” and said the Public Service Commission has already indicated that there is nothing it can do about the issue.
Initially, residents had thought that by filing a complaint to the Public Service Commission, the utility company would not be able to shut down services, Vignarajah said. A day before the hearing, the Public Service Commission issued a statement clarifying that BGE is required to “halt terminations of services” only in billing disputes.
“BGE asserts that the terminations at homes where exterior regulators are to be installed are due to safety disputes and not billing disputes,” the statement read. The public commission “will continue to follow its normal procedures,” verifying that the customer first tries to resolve the issue with the utility before stepping in, the statement said.
Vignarajah said that because this is a matter of “irreparable damage,” the court should grant an order that prevents the gas company from continuing to terminate service.
The irreparable damage at hand refers to the permanent changes on people’s historic rowhouses from contractors “tearing up their sidewalk, drilling a 3″ borehole through the historic marble, granite, and brick faces of their homes” to install an external regulator, according to the complaint.
As of Wednesday morning, BGE had shut off gas service for at least five properties in South and Southeast Baltimore. The utility company said that under its gas tariff, it is allowed to terminate service if property owners refuse to let contractors have “reasonable access” to equipment, including the installation of external gas regulators.
Vignarajah said the provision does not apply in this case, as this project is installing a new device on the exterior of homes.
David Ralph, one of the attorneys representing BGE, repeatedly stressed that the circuit court was not the “proper jurisdiction” for this matter and that the Public Service Commission should hear the case.
The commission has to approve all BGE protocols and plans, he said, and the utility company consults with legislators and takes into consideration “best engineering practices.” Residents are asking the court to take their judgment over BGE’s, Ralph said, which is “improper.”
If the Public Service Commission wanted to stop BGE, it could, he said. If the customer refuses to let BGE install the external regulator on their homes, the utility company can terminate service because residents “are not complying with the requirement to comply with standards,” he said.
When the judge asked Ralph about the irreparable damages of the project, the attorney said there were none. Residents, who took up the majority of the courtroom, began to laugh.
“He looks nervous,” a woman whispered.
Ralph said there is a lot of “hyperbole” and “emotion” surrounding the residents’ arguments, and repeated that the Public Service Commission should preside over this case. BGE makes decisions based on “direct consultations” with state and federal legislators, and these decisions are approved by the Public Service Commission.
“This is truly about safety,” the attorney said. The Flower Branch Act asks that new gas services are only installed outside.
“New gas service,” the judge interrupted, “but we are talking about existing structures.”
“Yes,” Ralph said. He said the gas service being installed on the outside of rowhomes was new. Ralph also said the Public Service Commission approved the installation of external regulators in existing structures.
“How do I know that?” the judge asked.
Ralph said the Public Service Commission has not objected to the project and repeated that it should preside over this case. “The PSC would know whether they approved these standards,” he said.
But because Circuit Court Judge John Nugent found that “irreparable harm” could result from BGE proceeding with the shutdown of services, the judge ruled in favor of residents.
The judge also declared that BGE must turn service back on for properties that had utilities cut off.
There will be a preliminary injunction hearing on July 10 for which Vignarajah expects that safety will be “an area of interest and focus.” Vignarajah said residents will spend the next few days educating other communities in Baltimore that are not “well-versed” in the tariff to know what “their rights” are.
“Thank you for taking the call,” said a teary Claudia Towles, who was arrested last week in a standoff with BGE, while hugging the former deputy attorney general.