The Maryland Public Service Commission has ordered the utility Washington Gas to pay $750,000 for not filing progress reports about its effort to replace equipment believed to have caused the fatal 2016 explosion at Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring.
Seven people died and nearly 70 were injured in the explosion on Aug. 10, 2016.
The explosion prompted multiple lawsuits, and a review from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which concluded in 2019. The NTSB determined that the fire started in a vent room when a failure of a mercury service regulator, which was disconnected from a vent line, caused natural gas to enter the room.
Washington Gas disputed the NTSB’s findings at the time, saying in a statement that it doesn’t “believe the evidence indicates failure of our equipment that night” and that the NTSB didn’t investigate other possible causes.
Mercury service regulators help reduce the flow of gas into homes and home appliances, according to Washington Gas’s website.
Most were installed in the 1950s and 1960s, according to the utility, and they are in the process of being replaced. Washington Gas estimates that less than 10% of its customers have this type of regulator.
In September 2019, the Public Service Commission announced that it was investigating whether Washington Gas had spent the money that was budgeted in 2003 to replace the mercury regulators.
According to a copy of Friday’s order from the commission, Washington Gas pledged in 2003 to replace more than 66,000 mercury regulators over the course of 10 years due to their age and safety concerns. The utility promised to file annual status reports on the progress of the replacement program until it is “substantially completed,” according to findings.
Washington Gas wrote in a statement to Bethesda Beat Tuesday afternoon that it is “still reviewing” the fine. The utility acknowledged in the statement that it did not file the progress reports.
“It is important to note that despite not filing the progress reports, Washington Gas has continued to replace MSRs in Maryland since 2004,” the statement read.
“Washington Gas filed testimony with the Commission showing that between 2004 and 2013 the Company replaced nearly 32,000 [mercury service regulators] on its Maryland system and more than 38,000 MSRs total through this year.”
The utility added that it has contracted with a company to survey all remaining regulators over the next year.
It committed to replace all regulators found at multi-family housing within three years of the survey’s end, and replace regulators found at single-family homes and other sites within five years of the survey.
The commission’s report, issued on Friday, states that Washington Gas argued during a hearing in September that it has “proactively attempted” to replace all of the mercury regulators since the early 2000s. The utility also argued that the changeout program was voluntary, and that its stated 10-year goal was a “plan,” as opposed to a “commitment.”
The report states that Washington Gas slightly diverted its attention from the mercury service regulator replacement program in the fall of 2003 because of an increase in natural gas leaks in Prince George’s County, which had become a more urgent need.
“However, neither the Commission nor any party was made aware that WGL’s actions to address the leaks would adversely affect the completion of MSR Replacement Program in any way,” the report states.
The commission fined the utility $100 per day for 7,500 days’ worth of late reports over the course of 17 years, bringing the total fine to $750,000, the order states.
Washington Gas’s agreement to replace the rest of the regulators is subject to certain conditions, which include:
- A requirement to notify the commission when the replacement program will start
- Mandatory annual progress reports that must be filed by Feb. 10 of each year
- A requirement to work with the commission on customer notification and service termination of the regulators
The Public Service Commission’s order was signed by all five members.
But commissioner Michael T. Richard wrote a concurring statement in which he argued that there should be separate penalties for not completing the progress reports on time, and not completing the regulator replacement program within the promised 10-year-period.
“In light of the Flower Branch incident and WGL’s failure to apprise the Commission regarding reprioritizing its programs, I remain convinced that further attention should have been given to the public safety deficit associated with WGL’s failure to complete the [replacement program],” he wrote.
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org