2021 | Government

County Council approves mercury service regulators bill

Legislation prompted by 2016 explosion, fire at Silver Spring apartment complex

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Montgomery County landlords will have to notify tenants about mercury service regulators in their homes, under legislation the County Council unanimously approved Tuesday.

Landlords also will have to notify local gas utility companies to eventually replace those devices.

Regulators control and regulate the flow of natural gas. If they are not installed properly, regulators can cause gas to build up and ignite.

The legislation is partly a reaction to an explosion and fire in December 2016 at Flower Branch apartments in Silver Spring that killed seven people. The regulator was not connected to a vent line, so natural gas built up and ignited.

County Council President Tom Hucker proposed the bill in December.

Before the vote Tuesday, Hucker said he still had a candle in his office from a memorial service for the victims of that event. More than 100 people were displaced by the explosion.

“Today, I’m glad we’re going to be able to do right by them, and the survivors of the tragedy to make sure we do what we can within our authority to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Hucker said.  

After an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and a review by the state’s Public Service Commission, the PSC fined WGL — the company that oversees Washington Gas, the owner of the regulator — $750,000 in an order issued in December.

The NTSB determined the regulator was the cause of the explosion.

The order also requires WGL to review all of its properties across Maryland and the region to determine which ones contain mercury service regulators. Within three years of the order, the utility is required to survey every property that might have one, and must replace them within five years of the end of that survey.

Hucker’s bill adds to these requirements by bringing landlords into the process.

It initially required them to determine whether there were any mercury service regulators on their property. But the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee struck that at a prior meeting, saying WGL, not the landlord, should be checking to ensure mercury service regulators are the devices identified.

The bill was amended, however, so landlords would still make a good-faith effort to take pictures of any devices they believe might be regulators. The change was made because WGL has the expertise to identify such devices, while landlords might not.

On June 21, the PHED Committee voted 3-0 to amend the bill so it applies to multifamily properties built before Jan. 1, 1968. Previously, the legislation applied to buildings from before 1975.

Brian Smith, a state government relations and public policy manager at WGL, said the utility has surveyed property in the region, and found that most buildings with the regulators predate 1968.

The PHED Committee also amended the bill to exclude condo owners of those with similar properties. 

Since it is expedited legislation, the bill takes effect as soon as County Executive Marc Elrich signs it. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com