Washington Gas fined $750K in case connected to 2016 Silver Spring apartment explosion

Maryland’s utility watchdogs ruled that Washington Gas Light should be fined $750,000 in a case tied to the utility’s failure to file annual reports on its stated plan to replace mercury service regulators.

In its order posted Dec. 18, the Public Service Commission said that it decided against issuing a fine connected to WGL’s failure to complete its plan to remove mercury service regulators. Instead, it limited the financial penalty with WGL’s failure to report on its progress.

The failure of a mercury service regulator inside the building was cited in the 2016 explosion at the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring. That blast killed seven people.

In 2003, as part of a rate case in which WGL sought a rate increase, the utility agreed to launch its mercury service regulator replacement program. It was estimated there were more than 66,000 such regulators that would be replaced over a 10-year period, by 2013.

One member of the Public Service Commission, Michael T. Richard, disagreed with the decision not to fine WGL for the failure to carry out its replacement scheme by 2013.

In his dissent, Richard wrote, “I believe this case would warrant the Commission assessing WGL two separate penalties, one for failing to complete its MSRRP as the Company committed to in Case Nos. 8920 and Case 8959, and another penalty — the one assessed by this Order — for failing to file annual reports regarding the Company’s progress as was required.”

Brian Edwards, spokesman for WGL, issued a statement that read in part, “While we are still reviewing the order, it’s important to note that the Commission made no safety-related findings in the case.” Edwards contended that the record shows mercury service regulators work as well as spring-loaded service regulators.

Still, Edwards did note that WGL does have a plan to remove all of the mercury service regulators in Maryland, starting with a survey expected to get underway by 2021.

Del. Lorig Charkoudian, whose district includes the neighborhood where the Flower Branch Apartment explosion occurred, called the decision by the commission “devastating.”

Referring to the August 2016 explosion, Charkoudian told WTOP, “The finding and the fine don’t really reflect the level of significance of this horrible outcome.”

Charkoudian said she’s working on legislation that would would require that all regulators —mercury and mechanical — be moved to the outside of the building of multi-family homes. That’s consistent with the NTSB recommendations.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misstated the purpose of the proposed legislation.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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