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Customers arrested protesting BGE gas equipment sue utility as work continues in Federal Hill

Baltimore residents argue in lawsuit BGE can't force 'dangerous' exterior gas regulator on customers
Baltimore residents argue in lawsuit BGE can't force 'dangerous' exterior gas regulator on customers 02:54

BALTIMORE - A new lawsuit demands BGE restore gas service to homes where the utility cut it off in a dispute over new equipment. 

Some residents claim the high-pressure gas regulators being installed are dangerous and several were arrested last week in their battle with BGE. 

WJZ Investigator Mike Hellgren spoke to some of those who were jailed, and they are determined to keep up the fight. 

"Right after we got out of jail, I came home to the notice on my door," Sandy Seward told Hellgren. Her gas was cut off Monday, she said with just three days notice, because she will not allow BGE to install a new high-pressure gas regulator outside her home. 

"As I left the jail, various people thanked us for what we are doing and I was very moved by that," Seward said.

The 37-year resident of Federal Hill said she feels "bullied and intimidated" by the utility. 

She said the gas regulators are unsightly and fears they pose a danger if they are damaged.

Seward is also part of a new class action lawsuit demanding BGE restore gas service where it has been cut. The suit also asks the court to stop forcing installation on those who do not want the new equipment. 

"They're cutting off people's gas up and down the street—and it is just to make a point to everyone else—do not challenge BGE," she said. 

"BGE's actions are designed to test for the first time the legal limits of its authority," according to the lawsuit.  It calls cutting off gas service "unprecedented and draconian."

"Yeah, it is a battle that many people have said, 'It's BGE, why bother?' That's what they're banking on. And unfortunately for them, they have met with people who are resilient and resistant to that kind of bullying tactic," Claudia Towles told Hellgren. She was also arrested last week and is one of more than 120 plaintiffs in the new lawsuit. 

"This is an issue that affects everyone in Baltimore City. BGE is simply here for profits," Towles said. 

BGE denies the accusations and has previously said the external equipment is safer, allowing easier access in an emergency. 

For now, BGE is continuing their work in Federal Hill while some neighbors continue their fight against it. 

"It's a scary battle. I can personally attest to how scary this has been, but quite frankly, this is about doing right," Towles said. 

At Monday night's city council meeting, council member Robert Stokes issued a resolution calling for a hearing into the matter.

WJZ saw police and private security at the worksite on Warren Avenue at various times throughout the day Monday.

Monday evening, BGE issued the following statement: 

"BGE is modernizing the gas system throughout our service area by replacing low-pressure gas infrastructure with a higher-pressure system that will provide more reliable and resilient natural gas service to residents. The goal of this work is to provide customers with natural gas in the safest and most reliable manner possible.

This work has been reviewed and approved by the Maryland Public Service Commission, and is in accordance with applicable laws, regulations, and BGE standards. These upgrades require the installation of outdoor regulators to maintain a safe level of pressure between the gas system and customer homes and appliances.

The upgraded system requires a gas regulator at each property to reduce pressure from the service line to a lower pressure for safe distribution into the building. These gas regulators must be placed outdoors in order to provide the safest gas service possible to our customers by ensuring gas does not enter a building at the higher pressure. This also allows first responders faster access to shut off gas, if necessary, versus an indoor regulator.

Outdoor locations are also safer in that if the regulator were to leak due to any cause, an outdoor location allows the leaking gas to dissipate directly into the atmosphere. The most dangerous situations occur when gas is collected in an area. If a regulator that is located indoors leaks, gas could collect inside the property and ignite. The resulting explosion could be catastrophic, and impact multiple properties. 

We are aware that some customers have aesthetic concerns about the regulators, and there are measures customers can take to reduce their visual impact. More importantly, this type of catastrophic event is not a likely occurrence. But in order to keep our customers and the public as safe as possible, we have determined that placing the regulator outdoors is the appropriate course of action.

Customers were notified in advance that their service would be disconnected if they prevent BGE from accessing its equipment or if they refuse to comply with BGE's requirement to safely provide gas service as provided in BGE's Service Tariff. While our desired approach is to avoid service interruptions, such action is necessary to maintain the integrity, safety, and reliability of our system.

Below is BGE's outlined communication attempts, to work with the customers to complete this work:

Federal Hill - Williams St. and Warren Ave Outreach

May 2022- BGE Project team met with the Federal Hill Community Association under the leadership of Beth Whitmer as our point of contact.

June 2022 – Small group meeting with Federal Hill community leadership and project management team.

January 17, 2023: Williams St. Postcard

January 31: Williams St. Letter

February 2: Initial conversation with community members on Williams St.

February 3: Initial conversation with Federal Hill Community Association

February 10: Williams St. Work Paused letter

April 5: Follow up conversations with community members on Williams St.

April 25: Williams St. restart letter sent

May 1 (Week of): Williams St. restart doorhangers hung

May 12: Williams St. resident spokesperson and Federal Hill Community association invited to public meeting

May 15: Public Meeting

May 19: Voicemails left at nonresponsive customers

May 24:  BGE Executive Leadership Meeting w/ Community Leadership (i.e., Fells Point, Federal Hill, Washington Hill, Upper Fells) 

June 8: Service disruption letters mailed pursuant to COMAR

June 21: Disconnection emails to customers and hand delivered disconnection letters

June 23: Email sent to all Williams/Warren St. customers, indicating work cancelled due to inclement weather."

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