Fresh Calls for Washington Gas To Add New Safety Measures Following Fatal Explosion

Fresh Calls for Washington Gas To Add New Safety Measures Following Fatal Explosion

Company takes issue with NTSB findings after 2016 natural gas blast

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Photo via NTSB

A day after a federal safety board said Washington Gas failed to ensure equipment was working properly before an explosion leveled a Silver Spring apartment complex, Montgomery County leaders called on the company to refocus its efforts on preventing a similar tragedy.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which oversees natural gas lines, determined the cause of the explosion that killed seven and injured nearly 70 others in 2016 was from disconnected gas venting equipment that the gas company was supposed to maintain.

“It’s a long time coming and it was a very sad day for the victims to go through what happened again,” County Council member Tom Hucker, who represents Silver Spring, said Wednesday. “At the same time, it means some resolution for some folks who have been waiting a long time for it.”

The NTSB issued a list of recommendations to various local, state and federal agencies as a result of its investigation, but most of the recommendations fell to Washington Gas, including replacing all mercury gas regulators – in use at the Flower Branch apartments at the time of the explosion and determined to be a contributing factor – and install the equipment outside residences.

The NTSB also recommended Washington Gas procedures be updated to mandate field technicians verify vent lines are connected and functioning properly after testing the equipment.

In a statement, Washington Gas rejected the NTSB’s findings, alleging the board did not fully investigate other potential causes of the blast.

Washington Gas also said it is reviewing the recommendation to replace its mercury gas regulators. An estimated 125,000 remain in service in Maryland, the District and Virginia.

“What is important for customers to know is that mercury regulators, like all other regulators used in our system, are reliable and safe,” the statement said. “Washington Gas has been systematically replacing mercury regulators when it is conducting other work, such as a service line replacement. Our focus in replacing these regulators is for environmental – not operational – reasons.”

State officials oversee Washington Gas, so the company isn’t subject to Montgomery regulations, but Hucker said he will work with state and federal officials to craft policies and legislation to “ensure this never happens in Montgomery County again.” He did not elaborate, saying discussions are in early stages.

At Tuesday’s meeting, NTSB officials chastised the gas company for “consistent resistance” to the investigation process and attempts to “avoid culpability,” instead attempting to shift blame elsewhere or insist the NTSB echo initial findings of the national Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that said the cause of the explosion was undetermined.

On Wednesday morning, County Council President Nancy Navarro issued a statement echoing those assertions, demanding the company change its tune.

“Safety is a paramount responsibility for utility companies serving the residents of Montgomery County,” Navarro said. “Instead of denying responsibility for the explosion, Washington Gas needs to move quickly to implement the recommendations made by the NTSB … While these changes won’t bring those back who tragically lost their lives and their homes as a result of the explosion, these measures may help prevent a catastrophe like this in the future.”

County Executive Marc Elrich called the findings “troubling” and said he, too, believes Washington Gas should “modernize” their equipment. He condemned other instances of what the NTSB called “communication gaps” in which firefighters were unable to access the room where the vent was located on a call about a gas smell two weeks before the explosion because management did not provide officials with an updated key after changing the locks.

“It seems there’s a bit of blame to go around,” Elrich said.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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