A highly-anticipated decision by the state body that oversees Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. prohibits the utility from requiring the installation of gas regulators on the outside of homes — a victory for residents in a monthslong battle over the issue.
The Maryland Public Service Commission, or PSC, decided that residents could choose whether they want regulators, which maintain a set pressure in a gas system, to be located outside or inside their homes.
Commissioners wrote in their order Tuesday that they generally prefer regulators to be installed outside of dwellings, but state and federal laws allow both indoor and outdoor options — as long as proper engineering standards are followed.
BGE will need to develop a written notice to customers that must be issued 14 days in advance to inform property owners of the installation and ask them to choose between external and internal regulators.
The commission also determined that BGE cannot terminate gas service because the resident declined the installation of exterior gas regulators.
In its order, the commission noted that BGE considered both indoor and outdoor gas regulators as safe options, and that a smart methane detector or a thermal shut-off valve could mitigate existing risks of indoor installations of gas regulators.
Following a devastating 2016 explosion and fire in a Silver Spring apartment complex that killed seven and injured more than 60 people, the state government passed a law in 2021 — the Flower Branch Act — requiring external regulators on multifamily dwellings with six or more units. The law came after a National Transportation Safety Board investigation determined that external gas regulators are generally safer for apartment complexes.
But the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has more nuanced guidance for smaller buildings and single-family homes, saying that regulators should both be in a “readily accessible location” and “be protected from corrosion and other damage, including vehicular damage.”
BGE has said it shifted its internal policy to comply with the federal investigation. In a statement on the commission’s decision, it cited the NTSB’s findings and said the external regulators meet best practices. The company said it is reviewing the PSC’s decision.
“The safety of our customers drives every decision we make, including our stance that placing gas regulators outdoors is safer because it reduces the risk of a catastrophic gas event,” the utility said.
Since last October, BGE has worked on a project to replace more than 11,200 indoor gas regulators with external ones by the end of 2031.
Residents in South and Southeast Baltimore began to question the project earlier this year, when they claimed BGE dodged their questions. Many of the residents who have spoken against the regulators live in historic districts, where sidewalks are narrow. They have raised concerns about vehicles or scooters crashing into the devices.
Heated community meetings escalated to a lawsuit, three arrests after a standoff and several hearings with city officials.
In June, BGE stopped installing gas regulators unless a resident specifically requested it after a Baltimore Circuit Court judge issued a restraining order.
The PSC held two informational hearings in August where they listened to testimony on public safety concerns over external gas regulators and customer service issues, including the termination of service to people who refused to let BGE install a regulator on the exterior of their homes.
Before the commission released its decision Tuesday morning, several city agencies had already weighed in on the issue with their own decisions. The Baltimore Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation voted last month to ban external gas regulators in its historic districts, and the City Council introduced a bill that would prevent BGE from installing gas regulators on properties with fewer than six units.
Under BGE’s policies, it cannot install regulators if it violates “federal, state, or local jurisdictional laws, ordinances, or regulations.”
The Office of People’s Counsel, a watchdog agency that advocates for utility consumers, has said it is concerned that BGE is installing the regulators without considering policies and market trends that are pushing for electrification and other efforts to fight climate change. The average cost for a gas regulator relocation or replacement is $6,343, according to the office, and could be upward of $11,000 to $30,000. Those costs are then passed on to ratepayers.
“The problem is that the Company is making these investments without any outreach to individual customers or assessment of long-term customer demand, which could be used to evaluate if the new services will actually be needed for the next five to ten years, let alone 35 to 50 years,” the office said in documents to the commission.
Baltimore Circuit Judge John S. Nugent on Tuesday gave permission to the parties in the class-action suit to file an amended complaint by the close of business on Friday.
BGE agreed to allow a temporary restraining order to remain in place through that time. Nugent asked both sides to confer to develop an interim order pending a motions hearing in the case.
Thiru Vignarajah, a former Maryland deputy attorney general who’s representing neighbors in the lawsuit, said more than 100 people had external gas regulators installed over their objections.
Vignarajah said those claims “need to be vindicated” and that he will seek a remedy for them in the amended complaint. That could include a reversal of the installation of an external gas regulator, he said.
If BGE does not agree to an adequate extension of the temporary restraining order, Vignarajah said, he expects to be back in court asking a judge to issue a preliminary injunction.
He said he and his clients were thrilled with the PSC’s order and called it a “win for every resident in Baltimore — and beyond.”
”This is an incredible victory that the residents have scored,” Vignarajah said outside the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse as he stood with about two dozen people. “It’s a victory that people just a couple months ago thought was improbable — against the odds — that everyone predicted BG&E would bulldoze over these residents, just the way they had bulldozed through communities across Baltimore.”