Report: Washington Gas fails to follow 10-year plan before Flower Branch explosion

This fire at Flower Branch Apartments last year cost seven people their lives. Tenants say conditions are better, but there is still much room for improvement. FILE PHOTO

SILVER SPRING – The mercury service gas regulators that the National Transportation Safety Board blamed for causing the deadly explosion at the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring three years ago needed to be replaced at least three years before the accident that killed seven people.  

According to a report released by the Public Service Commission of Maryland on Sept. 8, Washington Gas committed itself to replace all 66,793 mercury service regulators located inside customers’ premises back in 2003. 

At that time, a Washington Gas engineer described a 10-year program to remove these regulators and replace them with spring-type regulators, the Public Service Commission noted in its Sept. 5 order to show cause.

Because of this program, along with other information received at the time, the Public Service Commission granted Washington Gas a rate hike, noting that it would cost the utility $654,000 to replace all the old regulators, according to the six-page order to show cause.

Washington Gas did not carry out its 10-year plan, and the Flower Branch Apartments still had the old regulators when the explosion occurred in the summer of 2016.

According to the order, “The subsequent record… does not reveal how or whether the company took any steps to remove mercury service regulators pursuant to its ten-year plan, which should have been completed in 2013.”

This order to show cause is a court order that requires Washington Gas to explain why it never carried out the replacement program. 

Washington Gas issued a statement about the order that states, “Washington Gas in receipt of the Maryland Commission’s Order and we are reviewing. We are preparing a response to address the issues raised in the Order, and we will be submitting our response to the Commission in a timely manner.”

In April, the National Transportation Safety Board said the most likely cause of the explosion and fire was the failure of an unconnected regulator to a vent and thus, allowed natural gas to build up in the basement of one of the Flower Branch units. 

“It is infuriating to know that the death of seven community members and the prolonged suffering of many more could have been prevented,” Gustavo Torres, CASA de Maryland’s executive director, said. “This deceitful corporation has failed our community by deliberately ignoring concerns about the safety of these devices and enabling the continued usage of dangerous equipment in low-income neighborhoods like Flower Branch. County and State elected officials must bring this injustice to a halt by holding Washington Gas accountable.” 

Sofia Reyes, who lived at Flower Branch at the time of the explosion, also was upset to learn that the fatal accident was preventable.

“Washington Gas has lied to us again and again. Recently they invited us to a meeting to explain what they have done to prevent a similar tragedy from happening. But it was just another hoax in their attempt to evade responsibility,” Reyes said. “Knowing that they had so much time to prevent this tragedy is simply heartbreaking. It has been three years and many more will pass but our lives will never be the same. The only thing that will ease our pain will be knowing that Washington Gas is held accountable.”

Washington Gas has 30 days to file a response and to update the status of the mercury regulator replacement program. It also must show cause why it did not complete the replacement work and why the Public Service Commission should not impose a penalty for not doing the work and for failing to use funds collected from ratepayers “for the intended purpose.”

The order is signed by David Collins, deputy executive secretary, by the direction of the commission. 

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