Residents of eight historic neighborhoods have filed a lawsuit against BGE, accusing the gas provider of illegally terminating gas service to homes whose owners have refused to allow workers to install outdoor gas regulators.
The residents have engaged Thiru Vignarajah, former Maryland deputy attorney general, as counsel pro bono and to act as their spokesperson.
In a press conference Tuesday, Vignarajah said there are 14 named plaintiffs in the lawsuit that was filed on Friday, June 23, 2023, and 121 unnamed plaintiffs attached as well. The class remains open, and people can still join the suit.
Vignarajah said BGE can only terminate a customer’s gas service if a customer doesn’t pay their bill, or if a customer doesn’t grant BGE “reasonable access to their equipment.”
What BGE is doing, he said, has never been done before, which is to “terminate service because you don’t accept their preferred equipment, that you don’t adopt a new installation that is not required by law, that is not required by regulation, that is something they actually argued against, but is now something they figured out saves them money and brings in revenue. That is not a grounds for termination.”
At least six residences have had their gas turned off because they refused BGE access for the exterior gas regulators to be installed. Vignarajah said these regulators are not required by law, recommended by the Public Service Commission, or the federal agency responsible for this. “BGE’s actions manifestly violate both the Gas Service Tariff and Maryland regulations,” he said.
He explained that if they were just maintaining or repairing the existing pipelines, BGE would be responsible for absorbing the cost, but by installing these new pipelines and gas regulators, BGE is able to classify the repairs as new infrastructure costs, and recoup investments by passing the cost on to their customers.
In citing Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the organization responsible for overseeing the safety of outside regulators, Vignarajah read, “Gas service regulators placed outside are at risk for damage from vehicular traffic. PHMSA shows that between 2005 and 2018, 18% of gas line releases that result in fatality or hospitalization were caused by vehicular damage to meters and regulators located outside of a building.”
“This isn’t about safety. It’s about shifting liability,” he claimed, asserting that if BGE places the regulators inside, they are responsible for problems that occur. If damage to outdoor regulators occurs, the driver or vandals or whomever caused the damage becomes responsible for resulting problems.
“What they’ve done is taken an innocuous phrase, ‘reasonable access to its equipment’ and they’ve turned it into this crude, menacing cudgel with which they have literally brought into submission residents and communities across Baltimore,” Vignarajah said. “And why? Because they want to silence those who object to a profit-driven business strategy that this utility company has decided to dress up recently as a safety argument. We’re not falling for it. This isn’t about safety. This is about profits.”
A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge is scheduled to hold a hearing on the complaint and emergency motion Wednesday at 10 a.m.
Vignarajah said that in the interim they’ve asked BGE to take a pause.
“If they’re so confident they’re going to prevail in court, just take a minute to allow these homeowners to not have their gas cut off while there is pending litigation,” he said.
Vignarajah said BGE’s contract doesn’t allow them to terminate service as a means to force residents’ consent for them to do work they don’t want done.
Regarding homes that already have had the new regulators installed inside their homes, as has been done in entire neighborhoods in the first phase of this project, Vignarajah said, “The hypocrisy jumps off the page.”
“BGE, just three years ago, advocated against exterior regulators, saying they were not appropriate for Baltimore City. And just a few months ago, they were putting in interior regulators in a very wide range of very affluent communities,” he said.
BGE communications manager Talon Sachs on Tuesday said they cannot comment on active litigation, but they outlined the timeline residents are disputing.
“Below is BGE’s outlined communication attempts, to work with the customers to complete this work:
Federal Hill – Williams St. and Warren Ave Outreach
May 2022- BGE Project team met with the Federal Hill Community Association under the leadership of Beth Whitmer as our point of contact.
June 2022 – Small group meeting with Federal Hill community leadership and project management team.
January 17, 2023: Williams St. Postcard
January 31: Williams St. Letter
February 2: Initial conversation with community members on Williams St.
February 3: Initial conversation with Federal Hill Community Association
February 10: Williams St. Work Paused letter
April 5: Follow up conversations with community members on Williams St.
April 25: Williams St. restart letter sent
May 1 (Week of): Williams St. restart doorhangers hung
May 12: Williams St. resident spokesperson and Federal Hill Community association invited to public meeting
May 15: Public Meeting
May 19: Voicemails left at nonresponsive customers
May 24: BGE Executive Leadership Meeting w/ Community Leadership (i.e., Fells Point, Federal Hill, Washington Hill, Upper Fells)
June 8: Service disruption letters mailed pursuant to COMAR
June 21: Disconnection emails to customers and hand delivered disconnection letters
June 23: Email sent to all Williams/Warren St. customers, indicating work cancelled due to inclement weather.”
However, Vignarajah claims these don’t constitute actual “notice.” He argued the only thing that constitutes “notice” is a letter a customer gets that says, for example, “You haven’t paid your bill for X months. We are turning off your service in 14 days.” He says the first time residents received notices like that was last Wednesday morning, two hours before service was terminated.
Furthermore, he notes that BGE workers’ permit stated the work was for the 200 block of Warren Avenue, not the 300 or 400 block of Warren Avenue, which is where residents were standing to block them from doing the work.
Sachs responded to these and other points Vignarajah made in the press conference with the following statement on behalf of BGE:
“Regarding several points made in public regarding recent work in Federal Hill:
- Baltimore City issued BGE a permit that allows our professionals to complete their work in a safe and timely manner and does not require specific addresses to be listed as long as the work is in the agreed upon project area.
- Location of a gas regulator has no bearing on liability; it does have a bearing on safety for our customers and communities, which is why all regulators are now placed externally.
- When vents have been installed, they still require a hole to allow access. In most cases, these holes are 1.25” to 1.5” in diameter.”
Furthermore, Tori Leonard, Communications director for the Maryland Public Service Commission’s Consumer Affairs Division (CAD) sent Baltimore Fishbowl a statement regarding the numerous complaints residents have filed against BGE and the installation of exterior regulators.
“The Maryland Public Service Commission’s Consumer Affairs Division (CAD) has received numerous complaints related to the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company’s installation of exterior gas regulators at residences in Baltimore City. Some of those complaints involve the utility’s shutoff of gas service to properties where BGE’s contractors have been refused access to perform the installations.
In response to these particular complaints, CAD’s letters to customers are consistent with service termination procedures outlined in Commission regulations. The Commission notes that BGE is required to halt terminations of service when there is a pending complaint to CAD related to a billing dispute. BGE asserts that the terminations at homes where exterior regulators are to be installed are due to safety disputes and not billing disputes, a position that is being challenged by residents in a class-action lawsuit in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
CAD will continue to follow its normal procedures when receiving customer complaints about the exterior gas regulators. That is, to verify that the customer has attempted to first resolve the issue with their utility. If the customer is still not satisfied with the outcome, CAD will communicate with the utility on the customer’s behalf in an effort to resolve the dispute. In closing out a complaint and issuing a decision, CAD will take into account the utility’s actions and the applicable rules and regulations.”