Group sits around a table while man in suit stands at lectern for presentation
Thiru Vignarajah explains data to CHAP commissioners at public hearing. Photo by Aliza Worthington

Baltimore’s preservation commission considered arguments about BGE’s installation of gas regulators on the outside of historic residences during a special hearing on Tuesday.

The Commission on Historic and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) invited the submission of written testimony prior to the hearing and allowed public testimony at the hearing via sign-up at the meeting itself. CHAP has been requested to develop a policy on the exterior gas regulator installations for a report to the City Council.

Before Tuesday’s meeting, CHAP’s executive director Eric Holcomb received more than 129 emails and letters in opposition to BGE’s installation of outdoor regulators, and he reported that 10 neighborhood associations have also expressed their opposition.

The meeting began with a briefing by Holcolmb to the commissioners on new information they’ve learned through research, their law department, and other organizations.

Danielle Gooden, Government and External Affairs manager for BGE presented on the utility’s behalf, with help from BGE subject matter experts Kevin Nelson, Senior Manager for Gas Projects at BGE, and Sean Gorman, Manager of Smart Meter and Technology Group.

After their presentation, commissioners spent approximately 45 minutes asking the subject matter experts questions regarding the specifics and safety information of the indoor and outdoor installations of regulators. Commissioners also questioned Nelson and Gorman about photos of work already done by BGE and its contractors.

Former deputy attorney general Thiru Vignarajah presented on behalf of homeowners opposed to outdoor regulators, and as counsel to those participating in the class action lawsuit against BGE related to the matter. After Vignarajah’s presentation commissioners had no questions for him.

At that point, the eight people who signed up for public comments had three minutes each to make remarks about their position on the regulators. Everyone who spoke during this section of the meeting spoke in opposition to the outdoor regulators, and in favor of mandating BGE give the homeowners the choice.

In his briefing, Holcomb said that the issue for CHAP is that installing regulators on the exteriors of historic homes “detracts from the character, and involves boring holes into historic materials, like brick, marble, and limestone.”

While state law allows exterior installation, Holcomb said that even BGE and PHSMA (Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Materials Administration) admit that interior installation of vented regulators is also safe and legal. BGE just asserts that outdoor installation is safer.

Holcomb also quickly summarized the class action lawsuit background, in which Vignarajah is representing homeowners in historic neighborhoods against BGE regarding the exterior regulators. The judge in that case issued a temporary restraining order preventing BGE from installing exterior regulators without owner consent. There is a court hearing in that case in September.

Maryland Public Service Commission held a nine-hour hearing on the issue, and BGE has agreed that they will not install exterior regulators until PSC has issued a ruling, and as long as the temporary restraining order is in effect.

The final development upon which Holcomb reported was that on Monday, Baltimore City Council introduced Bill 23-0421, which requires property owner consent for gas metering and regulating equipment to be installed. As of Tuesday’s CHAP meeting, the language of the bill was not yet available online for review.

Holcomb then presented proposed CHAP recommendations.

  1. Staff recommends that CHAP disapprove exterior gas regulator installations on properties that have less than six housing units, non-residential properties, or for properties that have existing gas service. CHAP should issue Authorizations to Proceed for exterior gas regulators on properties with six or more housing units, or for properties receiving new gas service, as required by the Flower Branch Act.
  2. Staff recommends that CHAP should support City Council Bill 23-0421.
  3. CHAP should monitor any lawsuit, PSC ruling, and City Council Bill regarding this matter. When those efforts are concluded, CHAP should hold a briefing to determine if any next steps or revisions to our policy is needed.
  4. CHAP should continue to offer BGE support with any cover design for gas regulators.

During BGE’s presentation, Gooden stated that the utility’s position has always been rooted in their customers’ safety and argued that installing the gas regulators on the exterior of homes is safer than on the interior, “especially with high pressure gas delivery, in the event of a leak.” She asserted that 80-90% of regulators in our country are placed on the exterior of buildings.

“Not a single regulatory agency has said indoor regulators are safer,” Gooden said.

Nelson emphasized the importance of data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

“There’s a lot of discussion about PHMSA data on gas incidents….It’s exclusively on gas incidents. It doesn’t imply or determine causality. It also doesn’t tell you all the incidents that don’t get reported,” Nelson said.

Nelson also wanted to highlight the Flower Branch Apartments explosion which led to the Flower Branch Act requiring exterior regulators on buildings with six or more residences and new construction. He spoke as a private citizen at that point, saying that he personally would want an exterior regulator on his home.

Gorman spoke to the potential for homeowners to do things to the regulators when they’re installed on the interior that prevents the vents from doing their job.

Chairperson Harry Spikes asked, “With the gas regulators, have you all had conversations about tampering? Because the first thing I saw when I look at that is, hey, if someone is talking about shut-off valves, what’s to prevent someone with a very big wrench or ratchet to turn it and shut off a valve or gas to a homeowner, or vandalization?”

“In terms of emergency response, and that risk of tampering or shutting off of gas, that is a trade-off, a public safety trade-off. Access or security, right? And our position is that the access argument outweighs the security argument,” Gorman said.

Nelson added that the existence of an outdoor shut off valve is a legal requirement.

Vignarajah’s presentation involved providing context for “how we got here,” talking about the importance of customer choice, then ended with the safety issues surrounding outdoor regulators.

He outlined BGE’s options for the gas pipelines, some of which involved costs incurred by BGE, and others involving costs being borne by the customers. The path chosen by BGE, which is to replace existing pipelines with high pressure pipelines that require regulators.

“[BGE] told everyone one of two things: that it was required by law, and/or that it was for the sake of safety,” Vignarajah said. “They dropped the first one, because Flower Branch only applies to multifamily dwellings with six or more units. They dropped the claim that PHMSA required it.”

He explained that Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration required that if a regulator is placed indoors then it must be vented to the outside, and if it’s placed outdoors then it must be installed in a location that’s not prone to vehicular damage and/or corrosion. Vignarajah also mentioned that BGE had illegally shut off gas to numerous households who refused to have the work done, and that the judge in the case ordered BGE to turn on the gas to those homes, forbidding them from shutting off gas based on a homeowner’s refusal to have the regulator placed outside while the lawsuit was ongoing.

Moving to the safety issue, Vignarajah called BGE’s safety argument “a fiction.”

“These residents started asking some pretty basic questions that BGE couldn’t answer,” Vignarajah said. The main question was, “Could you please provide one study, one piece of data, one example besides Flower Branch, which had nothing to do with external regulators or internal regulators, for why external regulators are more safe?…Where is your data that suggests that external regulators are better?”

“They provided nothing,” Vignarajah said.

He provided data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on accidents involving external regulators from 2010 to the present. Of the reported incidents involving regulators, 87% involved those installed externally. Across the data set of total incidents, 101 people were injured, hospitalized, or killed. Of those incidents, 79% involved externally installed regulators.

Vignarajah concluded by asking the commission where safety data is equivocal, that homeowners should not only have a choice, but the final say.

Eight people signed up to give public testimony, all opposed to BGE’s plans to install regulators on the exterior of buildings. Topics of the remarks varied from complaints about miscommunication and misleading information from BGE to requests to rescind all previous ATPs to the simple request to support historic homeowners and neighborhoods.

Woman stands at lectern speaking to 9 people around a table during a presentation
Resident speaks during public comments segment of CHAP hearing. Photo by Aliza Worthington.

Wendy Bozel, president of the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association testified that she’d had an exterior regulator installed, while neighbors behind her had an interior regulator installed.

“I was not given any instructions as to the maintenance, just that BGE was responsible for their upkeep,” Bozel said. “I decided to do some research and found federal regulations and insurance company warnings.”

“Keep your gas regulator clear. It could save your life.”

“As the weather turns cold, there could be problems with the gas system and you might not know it.”

“Federal regulation 48 CFR192.353 states each meter and service regulator, whether inside or outside the building, must be installed in a readily accessible location, be protected from corrosion and other damage, including vehicular damage that may be anticipated.”

“’For safety purposes, the vent should be free of dirt, debris, insects, water, snow, and ice,’” Bozel read, “And I’ve submitted a picture of one that covered with ice. ‘If the regulator becomes blocked or air flow restricted for any reason, the regulator may not operate correctly, and could potentially result in the over pressure of an appliance, causing an explosion or fire.’”

Bozel again pointed out that none of this information or warning came from BGE, but from insurance companies and federal regulations she found herself online.

After about 30 minutes of discussion following the public remarks, commissioners discussed the language of their proposed recommendations, ultimately voting on striking recommendations 2 and 4, and adding a clause to recommendation 1.

  1. Staff recommends that CHAP disapprove exterior gas regulator installations on properties that have less than six housing units, non-residential properties, or for properties that have existing gas service. CHAP should issue Authorizations to Proceed for exterior gas regulators on properties with six or more housing units, or for properties receiving new gas service, as required by the Flower Branch Act, unless owner provides consent.
  2. CHAP should monitor any lawsuit, PSC ruling, and City Council Bill regarding this matter. When those efforts are concluded, CHAP should hold a briefing to determine if any next steps or revisions to our policy is needed.

The commission adopted the two recommendations, with seven members voting in favor and two abstaining.

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