BGE investigating underground electrical incident that sent smoke billowing onto downtown Baltimore street

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. was still trying to determine on Monday the cause of an underground electrical fire that scorched 130 feet of cable and sent black smoke billowing up into a downtown Baltimore street.

Justin Mulcahy, a spokesman for the electric and gas utility, said crews were on the scene at Charles and Lombard streets carrying out repairs throughout the day, hauling out damaged cable and replacing it. The Sunday evening incident closed several blocks.

BGE called the incident an electrical fire, but the Baltimore Fire Department said its crews did not extinguish anything and Mulcahy said there might not have been any flames.

It remained unclear Monday what caused the problem, Mulcahy said. There are several utilities that run through the conduit, which is owned by the city and leased by utility companies. BGE maintains the electrical wires affected by the incident, and Baltimore fire spokesman Chief Roman Clark said the department was not conducting an investigation.

Mulcahy expected repairs to continue at least through Monday night.

Clark said the fire department assisted BGE with air monitoring, checking buildings around the area for unsafe levels of carbon monoxide.

Firefighters could be seen propping open the door of a Subway fast-food restaurant. High carbon monoxide levels caused the evacuation of an area hotel, Mulcahy said.

Baltimore resident Maggie Ybarra, a freelance crime scene photographer, happened to be walking to a nearby Metro station at around 7 p.m. Sunday when she saw black smoke coming from a manhole cover on Charles Street, outside the Subway just north of Lombard Street.

Two manhole covers were blown off, she said, making a noise like an explosion. “I’m glad that nobody got hurt,” she said.

Hours later, roads remained closed in the vicinity of Charles and Lombard, but traffic was allowed through the area for the morning rush hour even though work continued.

In early February, news outlets reported that another electrical fire shut down traffic on Charles from Lombard to Redwood streets — the same intersection affected Sunday night. In that case, Mulcahy said BGE could not find any indication that any of its equipment malfunctioned and that he didn’t know the cause. The fire department did not respond to questions about the February incident.

The city conduit system is managed by the Baltimore Department of Transportation. Officials there could not be reached for comment. Mayor Catherine E. Pugh’s office did not respond to questions about whether she was concerned about the incidents.

The City Council is planning to hold a hearing on the conduit system later in the summer. Lester Davis, a spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said he expects officials will be questioned then about safety.

Sunday evening’s incident came about a year after another underground infrastructure failure nearby. Five people were injured late last June when an underground steam pipe exploded on Eutaw Street between West Lombard and Pratt streets. That explosion occurred just after 6 p.m. as people were crowding through the area headed to an Orioles game at Camden Yards.

The company that operates the city’s steam pipe system, used to help heat and cool buildings around downtown, blamed the explosion on “abnormal pipe wall thinning” by the system’s private operator.

Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Meehan contributed to this article.

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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