The residents suing Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. over its installation of gas regulators on the outsides of homes came to Baltimore’s preservation panel to implore them to do more to halt the project.
In a news conference before yesterday’s meeting, they accused the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) of “deafening silence” on the issue and called on the panel to:
Prohibit regulators outside 100-year-old or older homes without approval by the commission and homeowners, suspend the installations and place a moratorium on external regulators in historic districts.
They also expressed dismay at their recent discovery that BGE – after publicly agreeing to pause the project – had quietly asked CHAP to give them permission to proceed with the installations in Fells Point.
But the plaintiffs – who include residents from southeast, south and west Baltimore – were more disturbed by what they heard during the meeting, where commissioners were briefed on the project by CHAP Executive Director Eric Holcomb.
Holcomb summed up the issue facing the panel, he said, after being privately briefed by BGE representatives.
“BGE’s goal is to provide customers with natural gas in the safest and most reliable manner possible,” Holcomb said, reading from notes. “The work that they have done on the exterior of these buildings has been approved by the Maryland” Public Service Commission (PSC).
Both statements were incorrect, the group’s attorney, Thiru Vignarajah, said.
“The plaintiffs are incredibly frustrated by the misinformation BGE has given to the executive director in a closed-door private meeting,” Vignarajah declared after the hearing.
The class-action suit, filed by residents from Fells Point, Federal Hill, Canton and Pigtown and later joined by residents from Easterwood, says BGE is acting illegally when it tells residents they must accept the new equipment or risk losing gas service.
The company has said it is relocating the regulators as a matter of safety. Residents in the complaint argue that placement of the infrastructure outside houses is both unsightly and more dangerous than having them inside.
Confronting Holcomb after yesterday’s meeting, Vignarajah said that a number of Holcomb’s other assertions were incorrect as well.
“In 15 minutes we could have told you the answers to everything BGE has said. But you just told the entire commission that the PSC had blessed it, when they had not,” Vignarajah said.
The PSC, Vignarajah noted, recently issued a press release saying it “has opened a proceeding to consider the relocation of gas service regulators” in BGE’s service territory and has scheduled a hearing for August 15.
He pointed out that what the PSC approved last year, as a result of legislation known as the Flower Branch Act, was BGE’s plan to relocate indoor gas regulators on multifamily properties.
The state law does not apply to single-family homes, the plaintiffs have argued.
Holcomb agreed to meet with the community members, some of whom approached him briefly yesterday.
One woman was struck by Holcomb’s remark during the meeting about having received “100 or 200” opposition emails that he would share with the commissioners.
“You haven’t read the emails we’ve been sending for months?” she asked.
Holcomb responded, “No, I have been engaging with the community around this.”
“This is just bad faith”
The exchange was the latest twist in the long running controversy over BGE’s efforts to replace thousands of indoor gas regulators with external ones to maintain a set and safe gas pressure.
Asked about the utility’s efforts to quietly win CHAP approval, Claudia Towles, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit said, “at this point we’re no longer surprised by the actions BGE takes.”
Vignarajah has released a July 5 email to CHAP from a BGE representative requesting authorization to proceed with gas meter installation on about 200 historic properties along Bond, Lancaster and Shakespeare streets in Fells Point.
(This was a week after Baltimore City Circuit Judge John S. Nugent issued a 10-day temporary restraining order on the work, and BGE had agreed to comply.)
“We find it hard to understand – with the information now available – why the company should be allowed to proceed in any way,” said Towles, a Fells Point resident and one of three women who were arrested during a meter protest in Federal Hill.
“This is just bad faith,” said Towles, who is also an announced candidate for a 1st District City Council seat.
“This work is not prohibited by the terms of the temporary restraining order” – BGE spokeswoman Talon Sachs.
Asked about its request for permission to proceed with the work – after promising to pause it – the company did not answer directly, but said in an emailed statement that BGE is “in full compliance” with the temporary restraining order.
“At this time, we are only performing gas work involving external regulators in certain circumstances, including new business, such as Flower Branch Act situations where it is required by state law, instances where a customer voluntarily consents to the placement of a regulator on the exterior and is willing to sign a written consent indicating as such, and commercial installations,” wrote BGE spokeswoman Talon J. Sachs.
“This work is not prohibited by the terms of the temporary restraining order, and is why we are continuing our process in those situations,” Sachs said.
Executive Director’s Actions
BGE discussed gas meter installation at a meeting with CHAP early last year, but CHAP has not issued any guidance on the issue.
CHAP has, however, authorized BGE to proceed with the meter installation in neighborhoods including Federal Hill – actions it has took without a vote of the commission.
“The executive director signed off on it by himself,” Vignarajah said, referring to Holcomb.
At yesterday’s meeting, Holcomb stressed his conclusion that CHAP “does not have the expertise to decide on safety” and appeared inclined to defer to the company.
“When I met with BGE last week, they said they are working to create safe covers for these gas regulators,” he remarked at one point, drawing guffaws from the crowd.
Holcomb recommended that the commission hold a hearing on the issue, prompting a debate on whether it should take place before or after the PSC hearing.
“Eric has had conversations with BGE, but I don’t think those have been shared publicly with the commission or the people in this room” – Commissioner Ann Powell.
Commissioner Ann Powell called for the hearing to take place sooner rather than later.
“We aren’t in charge of safety, but we do have the ability to support the public discourse on this, and getting BGE to the table in these historic districts,” she said.
Commissioner Gary Rodwell responded. “Wouldn’t that uncertainty about the implication” of the PSC process and the litigation “argue for waiting until it is done, so that we have all the facts at hand?” he asked.
Powell countered the goal should be “to get the public as informed as possible prior to the hearing and to challenge BGE to the greatest extent possible, so that they have to answer the questions.”
Commissioner Garrett Power advocated waiting for the PSC to make a ruling, calling for CHAP to only “intervene after that decision to suggest design solutions and workarounds to make it more compatible with the historic district.”
Powell said she had lingering questions, such as how much additional safety is gained by the placement of regulators outside. “Is it 1%?” she wondered.
“Eric [Holcomb] has had conversations with BGE, but I don’t think those conversations have been shared publicly with the commission or all the people in this room who are concerned,” she continued, looking at the audience, which included about a dozen opponents of the BGE project.
Even Holcomb expressed doubts at one point, informing the commissioners he had received an email advising him that Boston, San Fransisco, New Orleans and other cities had prohibited external gas regulators
“I’d like to find out more about what that’s about,” he said.
Echoing Powell, Commissioner Peter Morrill called for CHAP’s hearing to take place prior to the PSC’s, saying, “I’d very much like to get the opinions of the people in the public, and I have some questions myself.”
Holcomb expressed doubts about his ability to pull that off, saying that the soonest he could stage a hearing “will probably be more than 30 days.”
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