Washington Gas Denies Responsibility for Fatal Apartment Explosion

Washington Gas Denies Responsibility for Fatal Apartment Explosion

Seven people were killed, nearly 70 injured at Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring in 2016

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The site of the Flower Branch Apartments explosion in 2016

Via NTSB

Washington Gas is standing firm in its assertion it was not responsible for a natural gas explosion that killed seven people. The utility has reiterated its position in a new filing with the Maryland Public Service Commission.

In September, the PSC launched an investigation into whether Washington Gas properly used funds budgeted in 2003 to replace some equipment, 13 years before the same type of equipment contributed to the deadly apartment complex explosion.

The commission ordered Washington Gas officials to provide a formal update about the status of its mercury regulator replacement plan and a written response to the findings of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation.

In its order, the Public Service Commission directed Washington Gas to explain “why the Commission should not impose a civil penalty” for not replacing the regulators and for “failing to use funds collected from ratepayers and approved for” the project.

The filing shows that the Public Service Commission in 2003 approved $654,000 to be used for the replacement program.

In its response, Washington Gas says its 10-year plan to replace mercury regulators was slowed as “high priority safety issues occurred” — a 1,400% increase in gas leaks reported in Prince George’s County between 2002 and 2005 — and it should not be fined for the delay. It also says the funds were not designated to be spent in a “specific manner.”

In its filing, Washington Gas says it replaced 53,542 mercury regulators between 2004 and 2013, about 29,000 in Maryland.

The PSC plans to investigate whether Washington Gas exercised “reasonable care to protect the public safety,” according to its order.

In 2016, an explosion at the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring killed seven people and injured nearly 70 others. This year, after a lengthy review, the National Transportation Safety Board determined the explosion was caused by the failure of a mercury service regulator with an unconnected vent line that allowed natural gas into the meter room, where it ignited. The board said the gas company was responsible for ensuring the vent line was connected.

The regulators reduce the pressure of natural gas in piping to the level used in homes. The mercury seal is intended to act as a “relief valve” and serves as “overpressure protection,” according to Washington Gas documents.

In a 398-page response on Friday to the PSC investigation, Washington Gas says it disagrees with the NTSB’s findings because there “is no competent evidence” that its regulator was the source of the natural gas leak leading to the explosion.

The Washington Gas filing says NTSB did not “adequately rule out other potential” causes of the explosion, an assertion the company has made before.
County officials and the NTSB have chastised Washington Gas for denying responsibility.

During its final hearing on the matter, NTSB board members and investigators said Washington Gas officials attempted to evade culpability and resisted its investigation.

Montgomery County officials called on the company to refocus its efforts on preventing future failures.

“This was a serious tragedy,” NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said during a hearing in April. “In the days and months that followed, Washington Gas should have been laser focused on the safety deficiencies that led to this incident and what could have been done to prevent it from occurring.”

Despite its objections to the NTSB report, Washington Gas has created a plan to comply with several recommendations from the board, including installing new regulators and relocating existing indoor regulators outside the building. The company estimates the work will cost approximately $32 million.

Washington Gas is also distributing information to customers about how to identify and report suspected gas leaks, according to its filing with the PSC.

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

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