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BGE fined more than $437,000 for safety violations in 2019 gas explosion in Columbia office park, must upgrade gas lines

The state fined BGE more than $437,000 for safety violations that caused a 2019 gas explosion at a Columbia office park and ordered the utility to follow through on a remediation plan to upgrade gas lines at more than 1,250 buildings at a cost of $17 million to prevent similar accidents.

The Public Service Commission of Maryland imposed the civil penalty Thursday requiring BGE to pay two $218,647 fines for violating both gas and electric regulations, according to a PSC order. BGE must pay the fine within 15 business days.

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The PSC’s engineering division issued a report in August that found problems with inadequate separation of underground gas and electric services at the Lakeside Office building, which was devastated by an explosion just before 8 a.m. Aug. 25, 2019.

The L-shaped office and retail complex in the 8800 block of Stanford Blvd. in the Columbia Corporate Park was home to a Social Security office, a nail salon, a coffee shop, an Indian grocery store, an Indian restaurant, a sushi restaurant and a pizzeria at the time.

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The explosion occurred on a Sunday morning when the building was unoccupied and did not result in injuries or fatalities.

Owner Holland Properties has been rebuilding the property as a new office and retail center.

The Public Service Commission said in its Thursday order that it accepted BGE’s proposed remediation plan to upgrade service at 1,253 buildings with similar gas and electric lines on its distribution system.

“We are pleased that our plan to upgrade gas and electric service installations that are similar to the Stanford Blvd. configuration to current safety standards has been accepted by the PSC,” Aaron Koos, a BGE spokesman,said Thursday.

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BGE said it will relocate underground electrical cables outside trenches commonly shared with gas pipes and will install “excess flow” safety valves. The utility began work last year to make improvements to 253 gas and electric common service trenches that had the same layout as the Stanford Boulevard building.

So far, 57 projects are either completed, under construction or in preparation for construction.

At those sites, BGE is using new technology in upgrades, abandoning the old buried electric service, installing a new electric service in its own new conduit and bringing gas service lines up to current standards. BGE expects to complete the work on all 253 by the end of 2021.

BGE also said it found an additional 1,000 buildings on its distribution system with smaller-diameter gas pipes in joint trenches with electric service. BGE plans to upgrade these sites using new practices designed to restrict gas service when gas flow exceeds certain limits. Work on those sites is expected to be completed by the end of 2023.

Those additional 1,000 sites differ slightly from the circumstances at Stanford Boulevard but still require safety upgrades.

“This work will ensure the safe and reliable operation of the BGE system so that an event like Stanford Blvd. does not happen again,” Koos said.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said Thursday that it was fortunate that the explosion occurred early on a Sunday morning when no one was in the building. First responders investigating a smell of natural gas who arrived just before the building exploded also were not injured.

The explosion “literally and figuratively shook the residents of Columbia and throughout Howard County,” Ball said in a statement. “This explosion could have been a devastating tragedy and I want to thank the work of the Public Service Commission to investigate this incident.”

Ball said he felt confident that BGE will “make the proper adjustments and oversight to mitigate the problems identified by Public Service Commission.”

BGE estimated the total cost for the work related to upgrade about 1,250 locations will be about $17 million between 2020 and 2023.

The PSC also ordered BGE to report to the commission on its progress on April 1 each year until the work is done.

BGE said in a November response to the PSC that it would not contest the PSC’s findings or the recommended fine.

Instead, BGE said it “is focusing its attention and effort on completing enhancements that an internal team of experts developed to ensure that an event like this does not occur again,” the order said.

The PSC said it imposed two fines because of a violation of the National Electrical Safety Code as well as a violation of the Federal Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act. It said both violations “are equally serious and equally responsible for the explosion at Stanford Boulevard.”

Last month, the PSC fined Washington Gas $750,000 after an investigation into the fatal gas explosion at the Flower Branch apartments in Silver Spring in 2016. That explosion killed seven residents and injured 65.

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