Nine months before South and Southeast Baltimore residents took Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.to court, Adrienne Smith challenged the utility company over a gas regulator replacement project in Easterwood, her historically Black neighborhood.
The answers that BGE gave to residents when they raised concerns last October to the utility company just “didn’t add up,” Smith said. But her efforts, including a lawsuit she wrote herself, went nowhere.
“We found it very difficult to get a definitive answer to why it was needed,” Smith said, referring to external gas regulators. “Every neighbor was told a different story.”
Now, Smith and other residents of who live on North Smallwood Street are joining litigation filed on behalf of more than 120 plaintiffs, who say external gas pressure regulators BGE is trying to install on the outside of homes, rather than inside, are “neither required by state or federal law.” On June 28, the Baltimore City Circuit Court issued a 10-day restraining order against BGE, saying the utility company did not have legal grounds to terminate gas service of homes where it had tried to start the installation.
While BGE has stressed that this relocation project is a matter of safety, residents are worried about having external regulators on their rowhomes, citing concerns about 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.
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 an explosion in a Silver Spring apartment complex in 2016 killed seven people. But guidance from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration calls on utility companies to “evaluate each service installation to determine the appropriate location of the service regulators.”
Thiru Vignarajah, former deputy attorney general who is representing at least eight neighborhood associations in the lawsuit, said in a press conference Wednesday morning that BGE is pulling a “divide-and-conquer strategy” to maximize profits and avoid liability.
About 20 residents from Smith’s neighborhood signed a petition against the project, which Smith sent to public officials in October of last year, including state Senator Antonio Hayes and Councilman James Torrence. The Baltimore Banner reached out to Hayes and Torrence for comment, but did not hear back.
Smith filed her lawsuit in the District Court of Montgomery County. Vignarajah said the judge ruled that “the damages claimed were much higher” than what could be handled in district court.
When she refused to let contractors install external regulators on her home, the utility company shut off gas service for two months, Smith said.
“We had no hot water and no cooking facilities,” Smith said. Smith, who usually hosts her family on holidays, did not have Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner at her home.
After residents gave in and allowed contractors to do the installations, residents say the work was “sloppy.” The homes on Smallwood Street date to the 1920s, with many residents having lived there for more than 40 years. Contractors rushed through the properties, Smith said, damaged the granite walls and left gaping holes. One neighbor told her there was a gas leak where their son was sleeping. Smith said her sister still does not have gas coming out of her oven.
Despite the regulators having already been installed, Smith and other residents joined the litigation to make it clear that the utility company was wrong and “exceeded their authority under gas service tariff,” Vignarajah said.
When asked how it felt to see the litigation unfold knowing she had tried to forge her own path with a lawsuit seven months ago, Smith said: “How does it feel? Well, I mean, I’m Black. I’m used to being minimized,” she said. “I was grateful that we had spoken up. … I was very much encouraged, as my sister and our neighbors, to turn something poisonous into medicine.”