By Ivan Torres
Special to The Sentinel
SILVER SPRING – In response to the 2016 explosion and fire at the Flower Branch Apartments, the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) held a public hearing at the Long Branch Library on Dec. 17 to determine if Washington Gas should be imposed a civil penalty.
The meeting came as officials representing the gas company confirmed that a settlement was reached pending lawsuit with victims of the accident.
Director of Regulatory Matters for Washington Gas John Dodge confirmed during the Commission’s hearing that a pending lawsuit filed by CASA, an immigration advocacy group, and the victims of the explosion was settled on Dec. 13. No details on the settlement were released.
“I am authorized to share that the pending litigation between the company and residents of Flower Branch has been resolved to the mutual satisfaction of the parties,” Dodge said. “The terms and conditions of the settlement are confidential.”
Residents, first responders and local officials were able to share stories from that day and demanded action from state officials and Washington Gas Light Company (WGL). Each person that spoke emphasized Washington Gas’ disinclination to replace and modernize their infrastructure.
According to a September report released by the Public Service Commission of Maryland, Washington Gas committed itself to replace all 66,793 mercury service regulators located inside the customers’ premises back in 2003. Washington Gas mapped it out on a 10-year plan that was scheduled to be completed by 2013.
When the 2016 explosion occurred at the apartment community, old regulators were still present in the building. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) stated in the September report that the mercury service gas regulators should have been replaced three years before the accident. Seven people were killed in the explosion.
Earl Stoddard, director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security for Montgomery County (OEMHS), suggested the removal of these regulators.
“This technology hasn’t been used since the 1960s. In its 2003 filing, Washington Gas noted the age of the equipment and the environmental risks associated as a rational for replacement,” Stoddard said. “Seventeen years later, Washington Gas has failed to complete the regulatory replacement. In fact, they can’t even tell us how many regulators were made in Montgomery County.”
“As more and more information comes out, it becomes more clear that this was a tragedy that could have been prevented,” said Lorig Charkoudian, a state delegate (D-20). “Had those regulators been replaced, this explosion would have never happened. For that reason, Washington Gas needs to be held accountable.”
The report detailed that the state of Maryland approved $654,000 to replace all the old regulators. Charkoudian suggested that Washington Gas be required to continue the regulator replacement program that was scheduled to be completed between 2003 to 2013 at the cost of the company, not ratepayers.
Currently, there are still problems at the apartment community that concern residents and local officials about a future incident. Scott Goldstein, fire chief for Montgomery County, said that 55% of their gas infrastructure is still inside the buildings. Moving it outside would serve two essential purposes, more convenient access for repair workers and a lower chance of explosion.”
“The mission of the public service commission is to assure safe, reliable, and economic utility and transportation service to the citizens of Maryland. That safety is now compromised by Washington Gas’ failure to replace the regulators,” Silver Spring resident Vicki Warren said. “The company has no idea how many still exists in homes or where they’re located.”
Another topic of the discussion was the ongoing injustice and trauma in the area. Residents voiced concerns at how long it has taken Washington Gas to respond to their questions and making sure that no future incidents happen again. Jacek Orzechowski, a minister in Silver Spring, described the children affected by the explosion as “seriously and mentally impaired.”
“This event affected one of the most vulnerable communities in Montgomery County,” Silver Spring resident Jill Clark-Gollub stated. “If this event occurred in a wealthier neighborhood, it would have been resolved faster.”
Despite most of the community’s dissatisfaction with Washington Gas, they were appreciative of the opportunity to speak in front of the board. George Escobar, chief of programs at CASA, recognized the importance of the hearing.
“Tonight marked the first time an oversight body held a formal hearing related to this incident in the actual community itself,” Escobar said. “Let’s make sure it’s not the last.”
“Washington Gas is here to listen to the concerns of the community and answer specific questions that anybody may have,” Dodge said. “If any of the questions or comments we hear tonight apprise to a response, we will provide that response to the commission, in writing.”
Washington Gas had multiple representatives in attendance, but only Dodge chose to speak publically while others spoke to residents in private conversations after the hearing. Those who were not able to attend the public hearing can submit their comments to the commission’s website until Jan. 31, 2020.