At a packed City Council hearing, Adrienne Smith described what happened after Baltimore Gas and Electric came to her West Baltimore home last October and, despite her objections, “demanded that I allow the installation of an exterior gas regulator, providing me with little to no information regarding its necessity, purpose or safety.”
The company eventually cut off her gas service. “And they were not nice about it,” she said, describing the two months her household endured without heat, hot water or a working stove.
Smith also pointed to “blatant discrepancies” between the company’s treatment of the century-old homes in her Black neighborhood and its handling of the affluent, white Bolton Hill neighborhood, where residents were allowed to get internal regulators “in order to protect stonework, masonry and property values.”
After her petition, lawsuit and entreaties to city officials went nowhere, Smith joined the class action lawsuit filed by individuals from other neighborhoods that was making some headway. Several fellow plaintiffs also testified last night.
“Here’s the truth,” said Magdelena Fitzsimmons, board president of the Washington Hill Community Association, addressing BGE’s main argument for its ongoing effort to replace thousands of indoor regulators in the region.
“Placing gas regulators outside is not safer, but is actually more dangerous in terms of injuries, hospitalizations and fatalities based on all the data and all the studies that are out there,” Fitzsimmons said, noting that emergency cut-offs “are always outside, whether the regulator is installed inside or outside.”
When regulators are placed outside a home, “you are subjecting them to vandalism, corrosion and vehicular collisions – which is the single largest contributor to injuries and fatalities,” Fitzsimmons continued, citing the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
“They all stood with BGE”
For about an hour, the residents denounced the company’s external regulator push, directing their rancor toward both BGE and city officials.
“I want to focus on how many ways BGE has violated the laws,” began Sandy Seward, one of the three women arrested last month in Federal Hill as they protested the installation of an external regulator.
Seward said the company was operating without a permit on the 400 block of Warren Avenue where the arrests took place, lacked the required authorization to proceed from the city’s historic preservation panel and failed to give residents a required 14-day notice before a cut off.
“One owner on Warren Avenue took his dog for an early morning walk and returned to find a notice that his gas was being cut off that day,” Seward noted.
“The day we were arrested,” she added pointedly, “the city councilman [Eric Costello] and representatives from the mayor’s office provided no answers or support to these residents. They all stood with BGE.”
“Do you guys work for them? Or do you work for us?” – Janet Blair.
That sentiment surfaced consistently at the hearing before the Health, Environment and Technology Committee.
Janet Blair said she worries about her liability and safety given the accidents that have taken place in which cars have crashed into marble steps and homes on her West Baltimore street.
Citing the various surcharges BGE has been allowed to add to customers’ bills, she had a question for city and state officials:
“Do you guys work for them? Or do you work for us?” Blair asked, drawing applause.
“You gotta make up your mind and get some backbone and stop giving them everything they ask for.”
“When things go wrong”
BGE sent four people to the hearing who provided testimony and offered rebuttals to points raised by residents, including the contention that outdoor regulators are responsible for numerous fatalities as a result of crashes.
“That’s a traffic safety problem” and not the fault of the utility, said Kevin Nelson senior manager of gas projects for BGE.
Nelson said closer examination of the PHMSA data would show that the culprit is vehicles “traveling at an excessive rate of speed.”
“Is it safer to have high-pressure gas equipment in an indoor environment where gas will accumulate and eventually present the risk of combustion?” – BGE’s Ervin McDaniel III.
He and others reiterated the company’s assertion that safety is the sole driver behind its regulator relocation program.
“The question we face is, when things go wrong, is it safer to have high-pressure gas equipment in an indoor environment where gas will accumulate and eventually present the risk of combustion?” said Ervin McDaniel III, senior manager of external affairs.
“Or is it best to have high pressure gas equipment on the outside of structures where it can be in an open environment and dissipate safely,” he continued, in an opening statement.
“Cash Grab” Allegation
Another allegation made by critics is that BGE’s chief motivation is to recover more profit from its gas division, amid projected sinking revenues as state policymakers push electrification.
“Had BGE chosen to repair the current infrastructure, those repair costs would have been an expense to BGE only,” said Fells Point resident Kate Simms, another plaintiff in the lawsuit.
• BGE Gas Regulators Part of Decades Long, $15 Billion BGE Spending Plan (Office of the People’s Counsel)
“However, choosing to make this a capital investment, every penny of the projected $15 billion total cost of this project will be passed on to consumers, either through BGE’s current monthly STRIDE surcharge and additionally through rate increases which would run ’til the end of the century,” Simms said.
This “cash grab” allegation, McDaniels testified, “is also not the case.”
“It is being done because we have an existing gas system which needs to be modernized,” he explained.
Climate Impact of Fossil Fuels
The hearing included questions and comments by Council members, including from Robert Stokes, representing East Baltimore, who referred to a constituent who had his gas service cut off for months last winter.
“I’m talking about people sitting in their houses in the wintertime who could possibly freeze to death because they said ‘no’ to installing those regulators in front of their house,” Stokes said.
The First District’s Zeke Cohen questioned the wisdom of BGE’s regulator replacement project, noting that it comes amid the utility’s request before the Public Service Commission for a three-year, 62% rate increase.
“I’m wondering, given the current climate crisis that we face, how this massive taxpayer-funded infrastructure investment in fossil fuel is in any way aligned with the state’s climate goals?” he said.
Advocating a gradual “lower cost” path toward reaching the state’s climate goals, McDaniels said that “we still have customers that want to use natural gas.”
“We have to maintain that system,” he said. “We cannot allow it to be a risk to the public.”
CHAP in the Spotlight
Agency heads were also questioned, including Eric Holcomb, executive director of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), who has come under criticism for what some called CHAP’s “deafening silence” on the issue.
The preservation panel has never issued guidance on the placement of the regulators nor held a public hearing on the matter (one is currently being planned).
Holcomb summarized the panel’s position this way to the Council last night:
“Yes, [the external regulators] are ugly, they do detract from the historic character and we don’t like them on the outside,” he said. “Nevertheless, if the safety issue is there, then we will require them.”
“Yes, [the external regulators] are ugly. Nevertheless, if the safety issue is there, then we will require them” – CHAP Executive Director Eric Holcomb.
Amid calls from plaintiffs in the lawsuit for CHAP to prohibit the installation of the regulators, Councilman Costello had a question:
“Does the law department believe CHAP has the authority” to do so?
Assistant City Solicitor Jeffrey Hochstetler demurred, citing attorney-client privilege.
Pressed by Costello, Hochstetler declined again to speak, but promised to brief the councilman in private.