The dispute between BGE and residents in many historic Baltimore neighborhoods continues, as BGE maintains its plans to place new gas regulators on homes’ exteriors.
Residents are concerned about the safety of placing the regulators on the outside of their homes, where they will be more susceptible to vandalism and damage from scooters, bicycles, and car accidents. They also argue that the regulators will negatively impact the appearance of their homes in federally registered historic neighborhoods.
Neighborhood associations from Fells Point, Federal Hill, Washington Hill, Bolton Hill, Butcher’s Hill, Locust Point, and others have organized to communicate their concerns to BGE and their elected officials, but the parties have yet to reach a compromise. BGE initially agreed to pause work to investigate the issue, but shortly thereafter announced work would continue as planned.
Community members have voiced their concerns during meetings with representatives from BGE and the Public Service Commission. Among the questions residents have raised is why during Phase One of the project, before the pandemic, BGE placed gas regulators inside homes with no concerns, while now in Phase Two the company is saying the regulators must be placed on homes’ exteriors for safety reasons.
Liz Bement of Federal Hill said BGE representatives at the community meetings did not adequately answer residents’ questions and that they “were only there to listen and placate” community members.
Max Stearns bought a home in Federal Hill just over a year ago and has lived in Baltimore City for more than 20 years. His myriad concerns range from the gas regulators on the outside of the historic homes being “unsightly” and at odds with the “integrity of the oldest historic neighborhoods in Baltimore” to BGE’s “deeply disconcerting homeowner-by-homeowner rollover approach,” whereby BGE will cut off gas service unless homeowners acquiesces to the outside regulators.
Stearns is concerned homeowners will try to mask the regulators’ appearance by placing other objects in front of them, which he said would further obstruct the sidewalks.
He attended the most recent meeting on May 15, where he said BGE representatives were solely focused on pointing out safety issues with placing regulators inside residents’ homes.
“BGE didn’t at all address the danger and safety issues of placing them outside the homes and concerns about the integrity of the oldest historic neighborhoods in the city,” he said.
Stearns added, “All along, residents have wished for a meaningful set of communications at the start of the process instead of having decisions made by BGE and imposed on residents,” with homeowners only being informed right before work was to begin.
Baltimore Fishbowl reached out to BGE to request data supporting their assertion that placing the regulators indoors was unsafe and/or less safe than placing them outdoors. BGE Communications Manager Talon Sachs said in an email that for “security reasons, BGE cannot provide [their] operational data.”
Sachs noted risk in operating any facility, and stated BGE’s objective is to “keep our communities safe by reducing the risk of a catastrophic incident.”
“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,” they said. “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.”
Sachs also cited the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) 2019 recommendation that regulators be placed outside, saying, “outdoor regulator installations are in line with industry best practices and are supported by the NTSB findings.”
Maggie Fitzsimmons, president of the Washington Hill Community Association, was also at the most recent meeting and deeply frustrated with the lack of answers and alternatives from BGE on issues of safety. She is concerned about liability, asking who is responsible if a person runs into the pipes with their bike, scooter, or a car? If a resident “hides” the regulator with a “decoration” or bench, as BGE representatives suggested in one meeting, who is liable if a passerby trips over those things?
Kate Simms, president of the Fells Point Residents’ Association, shares the same concerns as Stearns and Fitzsimmons. Simms told Baltimore Fishbowl in a phone conversation that at the May 15 meeting, an engineer from BGE confirmed that the only thing needed to shut off the gas is a wrench. Simms wonders what would keep anyone with a wrench from shutting off the gas to these homes.
When Fishbowl asked BGE about this concern, Sachs responded, “These valves are required by federal regulations. More importantly, quick access to emergency shut off valves is a vital safety concern for first responders during an emergency.”
Residents have filed complaints with the Public Service Commission, both individually and in the form of a Request for Emergency Hearing and Stop Work Order.
Tori Leonard, Director of Communications for the PSC, told Fishbowl in a phone call that “this is an open process,” and that “the chairman is paying attention to the situation.” She also said “the commission’s expectation is that the utility [BGE] will work with the community to resolve problems.”
Leonard said the Request for Emergency Hearing and Stop Work Order was “pending,” though not on the agenda of any upcoming meeting to be discussed. For an item to be placed on the agenda, Leonard said “there needs to be evidence that warrants it.” She told Fishbowl that engineering staff went on site visits, and communicated to PSC Chairman Jason Stanek that there were “no violations of state or federal law” with regards to the installation of the regulators.
Simms questioned BGE’s investment in gas infrastructure that could last for nearly a century but is due to be phased out in about 20 years. Earlier this year, Gov. Wes Moore signed the Climate Solutions Now Act into law, which requires net zero emissions by the year 2045.
David Lapp, People’s Counsel of the Office of People’s Counsel (OPC), has the same concern, and believes the money is better used to convert people’s home appliances to electricity.
“We are concerned that large-scale gas utility spending on new infrastructure like Operation Pipeline harms customers by locking in gas infrastructure costs for many decades to come, long after the infrastructure is likely to have any use or economic value,” Lapp wrote in an email to Baltimore Fishbowl.
He continued, “Operation Pipeline is the largest category of BGE’s capital infrastructure spending. That spending benefits gas utilities by growing BGE’s ‘rate base’ which in turn increases utility shareholder profits.”
BGE has nearly twice as many electric customers as gas, yet its spending on gas delivery is forecast to increase between now and 2026, according to its parent company Exelon’s presentation to shareholders.
Lapp is more concerned with the lower-income customers who won’t be able to afford the up-front cost of electrification.
“We should be considering better uses for customer dollars, such as energy efficiency and electrification,” he said.
Sachs responded to that concern, saying, “The company is eager to partner with State leadership, our customers, communities, and engaged stakeholders toward a cleaner energy future, and commits to help achieve Maryland’s goals using an optimal pathway that fosters greater affordability, equity, reliability, and resilience. As BGE’s systems evolve, it is critical to continue pipeline replacement programs to reduce leaks that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions while improving safety and reliability for customers.”
Regarding safety, Lapp pointed to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to show “the greatest safety risk from fossil gas explosions is from outside force damage, and particularly damage from vehicle collisions.”
“We are unaware of any analysis showing that safety risks associated with regulators are greater inside the home than outside the home, but placing regulators outside of people’s homes obviously increases the risk of force damage through accidents and vandalism,” he said.
Lapp is calling for a gas planning proceeding to increase transparency and consistency to explore better alternatives to replacing these regulators at all. He called BGE’s “changing positions on location and its lack of transparency…troubling.”
“BGE should either provide an evidence-based justification for installing regulators outside of people’s homes or change its practices,” Lapp said. “We don’t know if BGE is putting its investors’ desire for accelerated infrastructure replacement ahead of customer interests in where regulators are located.”