As part of an ongoing investigation, the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) has scheduled a public hearing for feedback about a deadly apartment explosion in Silver Spring.
In September, the PSC started investigating whether Washington Gas properly used funds budgeted in 2003 to replace equipment, 13 years before the same type of equipment contributed to the Flower Branch Apartments explosion that killed seven people and injured nearly 70 others.
Washington Gas has publicly denied culpability for the explosion multiple times.
On Monday afternoon, the PSC announced it will hold a hearing on Dec. 17 for the public, officials and Washington Gas to respond to its investigation. The hearing will begin at 6 p.m. at the Long Branch Library on Garland Avenue in Silver Spring.
Written comments can be submitted via first-class mail addressed to PSC Executive Secretary Andrew Johnson until Jan. 31, 2020.
This year, after a review that spanned several years, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) 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 Washington Gas 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.
At issue in the PSC investigation is whether Washington Gas should have replaced the mercury regulators more than a decade before the explosion.
In 2003, Washington Gas pledged to replace nearly 67,000 mercury regulators within 10 years, according to the PSC filing, which 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 PSC in 2003 approved $654,000 for the project.
A spokesperson for the Public Service Commission said, pursuant to state law, Washington Gas could be fined $25,000 per violation, per day.
In a 398-page response to the investigation, Washington Gas officials said 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, including about 29,000 in Maryland.
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.
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.
Settlement in civil lawsuit not finalized
In the years since the explosion, Flower Branch tenants and the victims’ families have filed multiple lawsuits against Kay Management, the management company for Flower Branch, and against Washington Gas.
The lawsuits have been consolidated into one case, which was scheduled to go to trial beginning on Monday. Attorneys on both sides told a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge in mid-November they were close to resolving the case through a confidential settlement.
Pat Regan, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said on Monday afternoon that involved parties are “working on a resolution, but they’re not there yet.”
“They’re hopeful they’ll get there by the end of the year, but that’s not guaranteed,” Regan said. “If they can’t reach a resolution, we’ll have to pick a new court date.”
Judge Roberg Greenberg issued a 30-day stay on the case, basically pausing proceedings for one month to allow negotiations to continue outside of court, according to online court records.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org