For months on end, residents battling the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to stop the installation of gas regulators on the outside of their homes couldn’t get public officials to even return their phone calls.
In June, three women were handcuffed, arrested and hauled away from a street in upscale Federal Hill where they were protesting the placement of the regulators against owners’ wishes.
While the opponents’ numbers grew – including individuals from less affluent Black neighborhoods who had been protesting BGE’s actions independently and joined in a class action suit – their prospects looked bleak.
“If the safety issue is there, then we will require them,” the executive director of CHAP, the city’s preservation board, stated flatly at a City Council hearing, referring to the unsightly conglomeration of pipes that the gas company was affixing to Baltimore rowhouses, saying they were necessitated by customer health and safety.
But in a big win yesterday for the residents, the Maryland Public Service Commission issued an order backing their position:
“The commission finds that both indoor and outdoor installations are generally permitted by state and federal law if proper engineering standards are followed,” the regulatory agency said. “Both indoor and outdoor installations are generally safe.”
As part of the commission’s order, BGE will no longer be permitted to cut off gas service (or threaten to) because a customer declines an exterior regulator unless outdoor installation is required by state or federal law.
For Claudia Towles of Fells Point, one of the women police arrested and sent to Central Booking over the issue, the PSC’s ruling was sweet vindication.
“Everyone told us we were wasting our time, that it was pointless to take on BGE. Between their political connections and corporate might, we had no chance of winning,” Towles said last night in a statement on behalf of the litigants released to The Brew.
“The ruling shows the power of persistence, the power of communities organizing and coming together to stand up for one another,” said Towles, a real estate agent and former toy store owner, who is a candidate for City Council in the 1st District.
The residents’ win is particularly notable given the sway held by the politically connected utility in City Hall in recent years:
• In 2019 the Board of Estimates, led by former mayor Catherine Pugh, approved a deal allowing BGE to clear-cut an 800-tree swath of Leakin Park.
The action came despite strenuous objections from a prominent citizens’ park group and internal resistance from the city’s own Recreation and Parks Department.
• Last February, in the face of an overwhelming November vote by citizens against privatizing the city’s underground conduit cable system and questionable features of a secretive deal first disclosed by The Brew, Mayor Brandon Scott and his two BOE appointees approved a conduit management contract written by BGE.
Opposition to the conduit deal by Council President Nick Mosby, Comptroller Bill Henry and other electeds quickly fizzled out.
It was the kind of outcome that has led external regulator opponents, like West Baltimore’s Janet Blair, to aim barbs at city officials as well as BGE.
“Do you guys work for them? Or do you work for us?” she asked, drawing loud applause at a City Council hearing. “You gotta make up your mind and get some backbone and stop giving them everything they ask for.”
Towles declined to say more yesterday because of concern that the class action suit is still pending and because BGE’s commitment to following the PSC’s order is still not clear.
The commission noted in its order that BGE acknowledges that both indoor and outdoor gas regulators are safe options and that a smart methane detector, or a thermal shut-off valve, could mitigate risks of indoor installations of gas regulators.
But in an email sent to community leaders yesterday, the utility said it would comply with the order, but also appeared to still be clinging to its old position.
“The safety of our customers drives every decision we make, including our stance that placing gas regulators outdoors is safer because it reduces the risk of a catastrophic gas event,” from BGEcommunityengagement@exelon.corp.
In their class action suit, residents present data indicating that the placement of external regulators, sometimes just feet away from narrow city streets and alleys, makes them vulnerable to car crashes and vandalism.
The remedies residents could seek include monetary damages or a reversal of the installation – Thiru Vignarajah, plaintiffs’ attorney.
A city judge, who previously issued a temporary restraining order halting BGE’s regulator installation, yesterday gave the group until Friday to amend its complaint.
The plaintiffs, according to their attorney, Thiru Vignarajah, will seek remedies for the roughly 100 people who had an external regulator installed against their wishes. The remedies could include monetary damages or a reversal of the installation, he said.
“This PSC ruling now is law that applies to the entire state,” he said, noting that Maryland may be the first state in the nation to give customers such a definitive right to decline external regulators.
“Everyone said BGE would win, that it was implausible to go against this company,” said Vignarajah, a former deputy attorney general who ran for mayor in 2020 Democratic Party primary. “Now they’ve scored a huge win. I told them to take a victory lap.”
But he cautioned that his clients want to monitor the issue to make sure that the PSC keeps pressure on the utility to comply with the intent of the order.
In court yesterday, Vignarajah spoke out against a BGE suggestion that outdoor regulators be considered the default option going forward.
He argued that could lead to residents ending up with outdoor regulators they didn’t know they could decline.
“We know we still have to keep a close watch on the details as this plays out,” Vignarajah said.