Fells Point, Federal Hill and other neighborhood associations said they had asked for a meeting with BGE officials for weeks. They wanted to have a place and time where they could ask all the questions they felt the company had dodged about gas regulators the utility wants to put on the outside of people’s homes.

When they finally got that meeting Monday, BGE had set up stations around the room at St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church so people could talk one on one, rather than addressing the utility representatives publicly as a group. Residents were not having it.

That moment set the tone for the contentious two-hour meeting.

“We were expecting to be able to sit down and ask all of you at the same time, the same questions, so that we could get the answers and hear each other,” said Magdalena Fitzsimmons, who lives in the Washington Hill neighborhood.

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A gas regulator outside a rowhome in Fells Point.
Fells Point residents are worried about the safety of external gas regulators. (Courtesy of Kate Simms)

The gas company is replacing aging “low-pressure gas infrastructure” throughout Fells Point with a new system that it says will provide “more reliable and resilient service to residents,” according to a spokesperson for BGE. The change requires the gas regulator to be installed outside a home to “reduce pressure from the service line” for safe distribution into the property, the spokesperson said in an email.

BGE also says, if an internal regulator fails, it could increase the risk of gas intrusion into the home, whereas outdoor regulators vent directly outdoors. The company said it is following recommendations set up by the National Transportation Safety Board but did not provide the report when asked. BGE also did not answer The Baltimore Banner’s questions about how the gas company has determined that external gas regulators are safer.

Residents say their communities, including Fells Point and Federal Hill, are not fit to have external regulators. Narrow sidewalks, which are already not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, would be even less accessible to people in wheelchairs, strollers and scooters. The neighborhoods are also high-pedestrian traffic areas. All of that, community residents say, should grant them an exception.

“We’re not asking them to do anything that they’re not already doing,” Claudia Towles, who lives in Fells Point, told The Banner, adding that Bolton Hill residents have internal regulators in their homes. “We’re just asking them to do it on a scale of a neighborhood to provide equity to all residents.”

BGE says the internal regulators mentioned by residents were installed before the company changed its practices in 2021. Residents disputed that, saying they knew of homes that were granted an exception last year.

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“Alternative methods will be explored if specific locations lack the required space for an outdoor regulator due to building codes or regulations,” according to a BGE statement distributed after the meeting.

Holding on to highlighted documents, community residents were frustrated by what they said was a lack of communication and transparency since January, when they learned the gas company would start work in Fells Point. They called BGE’s conduct “extraordinarily frustrating” and “insulting,” a textbook example of “what not to do in public relations.”

Explanations from the BGE community engagement and outreach team didn’t satisfy residents. The company also could not provide data that shows which is safer, internal or external regulators. Residents interrupted Kevin Nelson, senior manager for gas projects at BGE, multiple times, saying he was not answering their questions.

“Can you quantify the difference in the safety of those two installations?” a resident asked.

“Who is liable if someone in a scooter hits the regulator and gets hurt?”

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“Why is it [internal regulators are] safe in Bolton Hill but not here?”

“Safety is not an absolute,” Nelson started.

“Oh, so that works on your argument but not ours?” a resident interrupted.

Community residents also said it was not clear who they should contact if they had questions, particularly when residents were told the company was going to cut their gas off if they don’t let the contractor in.

“That’s bullying,” Fitzsimmons said. “That is bullying to threaten to shut off.”

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A spokesperson said in a statement that the gas company does not want to discontinue service but it is allowed to do so under the terms of the company’s gas service tariff. They stressed the company’s desired approach is to avoid service interruptions.

If there is a difference in the safety of external regulators, there needs to be a tradeoff that makes up for the fact that anyone would have access to the device outside — which could result in accidents and injuries, Mark Stern, a resident of Federal Hill, said at the meeting.

A promotional poster BGE set up at the meeting suggested bringing attention to the regulator by painting it pink, painting a flamingo on the wall where it is located or putting a flower pot or bench in front of it. Residents said these were not solutions that would address the safety concerns of the community.

“By the way, BGE, if you’re going to talk about aesthetics, might want to spell it correctly,” Stern said, referring to the poster that read “aestetic.” While aesthetics are part of the residents’ concerns, especially when they live in historic districts and are expected to maintain their houses in a certain way, people at the meeting were overwhelmingly more worried about safety.

Almost two hours into the meeting, a resident told BGE they did not want to speak with the community outreach and engagement team but with officials who can make decisions.

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“Can you pull that off?” the resident asked. “Can you pull off a meeting where we can meet with people who actually have the authority to respond to what we’re saying?”

Allyson Black, chief of staff to the chief customer officer at BGE, said the gas company shares residents’ concerns on safety.

“I do not want you to think that BGE is a company that is focused on profit. I understand that it may be funny,” she said, when her statement caused laughter throughout the room. “But this is true. We care about the community. … We’re going to take these concerns back. I cannot promise a change. I want to be clear about that. But we are going to do what we can do to share with our leadership what’s been conveyed tonight.”

clara.longo@thebaltimorebanner.com

Clara Longo de Freitas is a neighborhood reporter covering East Baltimore communities. Before joining the Banner, she interned at The Baltimore Sun as an emerging news and community reporter. She also has design and illustration experience with several news organizations, including The Hill and NPR. 

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