2021 | Government

Mercury regulator bill amended to include older buildings

Measure is a response to 2016 fatal explosion in Silver Spring

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This post was updated at around 1:15 p.m. on Tuesday, June 22, 2021 to clarify the role of landlords taking pictures of possible mercury service regulators.

A Montgomery County Council committee on Monday supported broadening a bill that requires landlords to monitor and eventually replace indoor mercury service regulators.

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

County Council Tom Hucker introduced the bill in December, stemming in part from 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. 

More than 100 people were displaced by the explosion. The Public Service Commission fined WGL — the company that oversees Washington Gas, the owner of the regulator — $750,000 in an order issued in December, after the National Transportation Safety Board determined the regulator was the cause of the explosion.

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

Hucker’s bill expands on the order by incorporating landlords into the process. It would require them to notify tenants if there is a mercury service regulator, and immediately contact the gas utility to replace it with a safer alternative. 

The County Council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee has workshopped the bill multiple times. The committee previously amended the bill to only require landlords to take pictures of any potential mercury service regulator, and send them to WGL, the company overseeing Washington Gas company. 

Previously, Hucker’s proposal required landlords to determine whether there were any mercury service regulators on their property. But the PHED Committee struck that, saying WGL should be checking to ensure mercury service regulators are the devices identified, not the landlord. The landlord, however, 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.

The bill also requires that the Department of Housing and Community Affairs keep a public database of all buildings that have mercury service regulators, where they have been replaced, and any enforcement actions involving those devices. 

On Monday, committee members 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.

The committee also amended the bill so it doesn’t apply to condo owners or landlords with similar property. 

The committee’s changes will be sent to the full council for its approval.

Brian Smith, a state government relations and public policy manager at WGL, said that as of Monday, the company’s survey and review of its properties across the county have shown that most of its mercury service regulators are in buildings constructed prior to 1968.

Council Member Will Jawando initially questioned Smith about why there was a need to change the cutoff year from 1975 to 1968. Smith replied that the utility is following the PSC order. He said that because of the technology used at the time, many regulators appear to predate 1968, before regulations were changed regarding gas lines.

Aseem Nigam, the director of the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs, said the amended bill, using 1968 as the cutoff, would include more than 450 properties countywide that might have a regulator. If the cutoff year were 1975, that would add roughly 35 more properties, Nigam said.

Smith said that even if the bill leaves out some potential properties with a regulator, the PSC order requires the utility to check all regulators and replace them.

“If your concern is … [a] building will not get eyes on it by our contractors, that’s not the case,” Smith said. 

Council Member Andrew Friedson agreed with Smith, calling the county’s bill a “belts and suspenders” approach to the PSC order — an extra safeguard.

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