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BGE equipment did not conform to safety standards in 2019 Columbia gas explosion, PSC staff report finds

The morning after an explosion rocked a Columbia office complex and shopping center, authorities shared more details about the blast.

Responding to a state report that faulted its failure to comply with safety standards at the site of a gas explosion that damaged a Columbia office building last year, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. said Tuesday that it is separating underground electric and gas utility lines at 250 other commercial sites.

The work, which BGE said has already begun, is expected to reduce the risk of similar incidents.

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The report by the engineering division of the Public Service Commission of Maryland, dated Aug. 6, was made public late Monday after a massive gas explosion Monday morning leveled three rowhomes in Northwest Baltimore, killing two people and seriously injuring at least seven others.

“Based on the response and evidence submitted by BGE, Staff concludes that BGE failed to provide for safe operation and maintenance of the facilities,” said the report on the Columbia office building explosion in August 2019.

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The report pointed to problems with inadequate separation of underground gas and electric services.

The service equipment failures that caused that 2019 accident are considered safety violations, the report said. It recommended the five-member Public Service Commission, which regulates the state’s utilities, consider levying a $218,647 civil penalty against BGE.

BGE said Tuesday that it is reviewing the report and intends to work closely with the PSC to address and correct the identified issues.

“Based on our analysis of the Stanford Blvd. incident, BGE is currently instituting a number of changes to enhance the BGE system,” said Aaron Koos, a BGE spokesman, in an email.

Koos said the 250 locations throughout its Central Maryland service areas have service lines similar to those at the Columbia building.

Service to those locations is being redesigned to current industry best practices, he said, including moving the electrical services outside trenches shared with gas pipes and other enhancements. The work has started and will be finished by next year.

“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.

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

BGE also issued an update Tuesday on its investigation into Monday’s explosion in the Reisterstown Station neighborhood, saying it had found no leaks in an inspection of the homes’ gas mains.

Instead, data showed “some type of issue beyond the BGE meter on customer-owned equipment and is currently being analyzed by investigators.”

The PSC staff report on the Columbia explosion criticizes BGE for a lack of conclusions nearly a year later. It argues enough is known to show whether BGE complied with safety regulations.

“Currently almost a year after the accident, BGE is unable to provide a more detailed root cause analysis of what triggered the event or accurately estimate a date of completion at this time,” the report says.

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Koos said Tuesday that BGE has so far concluded that an electrical fault in BGE lines caused thermal degradation of BGE’s electrical lines and a communications cable and damage to BGE’s gas pipeline, which fed the building. Escaping gas entered the building, resulting in the explosion.

But the utility has not been able to move ahead with laboratory testing to replicate the event because experts have not yet been able to find a way to safely do so, Koos said. In the meantime, BGE has started putting its new safety practices in place.

The Columbia explosion occurred just before 8 a.m. Aug. 25, 2019, in the Lakeside Office building in the 8800 block of Stanford Blvd. Other tenants in the roughly 40,000-square-foot, L-shaped building’s office and retail space included a Social Security office, an Indian grocery store, a nail salon, a coffee shop, a sushi restaurant and a pizzeria.

Owner Holland Properties is rebuilding the property as a new office and retail center and hoping to bring back some of the original tenants. Joe Holland, president of Holland Construction, said the PSC’s report was the first he has seen out of several investigations that were underway.

“It is in line with what our understanding of the cause was,” said Holland, whose company had representatives on-site during excavation of damaged gas lines. “Nothing in that report that surprises us.”

In reconstructing the building, “We’ve made the conscious decision to separate the electric and gas utilities even farther than what BGE recommended as part of the installation,” he said.

Newer regulations also call for equipment that regulates gas pressure to be placed on the exterior of the building, he said.

While BGE’s investigation into the Columbia incident is continuing, the utility did submit some responses to data requests from the staff, which are included in the report, said Tori Leonard, a PSC spokeswoman. BGE also will be required to file a report on the Baltimore explosion, she said.

The commission now must consider what action to take. Typically, the commission would solicit comments from parties and responses from BGE before making any additional findings or scheduling an evidentiary hearing.

The report said investigators found that multiple utility facilities in a “joint trench” were located near or crossing each other. An electrical fault in a BGE electrical service cable supplying the building was discovered while testing gas line pressure and several holes were found in the gas pipe.

Additional inspections showed locations where damage to the gas service appears to have occurred due to interaction with the electrical fault.

The report noted a similar accident on July 7, 1998, involving Washington Gas Light Co. in Loudoun County, Virginia, in which an explosion and fire in a subdivision left one person dead and three injured. That case also involved a hole in a gas service line, the report noted. Virginia lawmakers approved a bill in 2000 requiring specific separations between electric and gas service underground utility lines, the report said.

“As demonstrated in the Loudoun County accident, inadequate separation of underground gas and electric services can result in a melt-through incident from an electric fault; similar to the accident that occurred at 8865 Stanford Boulevard,” the report said.

No federal regulations or national standards exist now that specifically address separation between electric and gas service underground utility lines, the report said.

But the National Electric Safety Code does address the separation of underground electric lines from other underground structures, including at the time of construction, the report said.

And the federal Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration require gas operators, such as BGE, to follow certain procedures.

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Kelly Drake, co-founder/director of Anxiety Treatment Center of Maryland, one of the businesses in the Lakeside Office building read the report Tuesday and said she no longer trusted BGE.

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For Drake, the 2019 explosion was a “total loss.” Her office was on the second floor of the building right in front of where the gas line was leaking.

“Knowing that the lives of every person working in and patronizing a business in that building, were in imminent danger of serious injury or death is incomprehensible,” Drake said.

Nearly a year after the explosion, she’s still coping with the aftermath. Though Drake moved her business to a new location, she’s had to re-create hundreds of destroyed patient files and deal with a financial loss from being underinsured.

“Now that we know that the negligence of BGE is widespread in our state, BGE should immediately provide the public with the addresses of every dwelling that is at risk for a similar devastating event,” Drake said. “We implicitly trust that utility companies that supply and maintain our essential gas and electric are doing so with the highest level of safety and quality standards. BGE did not. They failed us.”

Baltimore Sun Media reporter Ana Faguy contributed to this article.

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