The number of hazardous gas leaks from old underground pipes in and around Baltimore increased significantly again last year — even as the area’s largest utility continued a state-mandated push to modernize its aging infrastructure.
Last year alone, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. workers performed more than 8,600 leak repairs — an average of two dozen a day. Nearly 4,400 involved leaks considered hazardous, up 20% from the year before, according to data BGE submitted to federal regulators.
Leaks labeled as hazardous include any found near residential areas. The number of these potentially dangerous leaks has gone up each year since 2017, when about 2,500 were reported, and have increased substantially over the past decade.
Monday’s fatal gas explosion that leveled three homes in Reisterstown Station in Northwest Baltimore has prompted a renewed focus on the state of BGE’s infrastructure, though the cause of the blast remains unknown.
In a statement Thursday, the company said the explosion was not caused by its electric or gas equipment in the area, writing that the equipment “has been operating safely.” It said evidence points to the possibility of “some type of issue ... on customer-owned gas equipment.” BGE said it reviewed its records and found no gas leaks reported at the properties over the last five years.
BGE is the nation’s oldest gas utility, and much of its infrastructure is over 50 years old. The company is in the midst of a massive project to upgrade its pipes, investing $165 million last year on improvements.
But even with the infusion of cash, it could take two decades to revamp the sprawling underground network at the current rate of work. The company is committed to replacing roughly 50 miles a year, but in the meantime, leaks remain a concern, both in terms of public safety and environmental impact.
State Sen. Delores Kelley, chair of the Finance Committee, calls the situation “frightening” and said the legislature needs to take a hard look at what else can be done to ensure a swifter modernization of BGE’s infrastructure across Central Maryland.
The company offers a number of explanations for the rise in leaky pipes, including improved detection technologies and record-keeping systems. But it also acknowledges a “significant increase” in failures involving a kind of steel material that was often installed before the 1970s.
Low-pressure cast iron, unprotected steel and copper piping make up less than 20% of the gas system but account for 70% of the leaks, according to the utility company.
BGE says those materials aren’t found along Labyrinth Road, the site of Monday’s deadly explosion. The gas infrastructure in that neighborhood, though it dates to the 1960s, is considered resilient by BGE.
The company inspected the area in June and July of 2019, according to a series of statements released after the blast, and found no leaks. Certain neighborhoods are checked out annually, but Labyrinth Road is on a three-year inspection cycle.
Kelley said it may be time to step up the scheduled inspections of gas infrastructure, especially as modernization plans are expected to drag on for years.
Over the past six years, BGE replaced roughly 260 miles of gas mains under the state program that mandates the work, called STRIDE, for Maryland Strategic Infrastructure Development and Enhancement. The program was created by state lawmakers in 2013, and re-upped last year.
BGE funds its accelerated infrastructure replacement plan — which the company estimates will cost $963 million through 2023 — through a small monthly customer surcharge.
Barring problems related to the coronavirus pandemic, the company expects to spend $173 million and replace 56 miles of gas main this year.
That’s a small fraction of the roughly 1,100 miles of BGE gas pipes that are made of aging metal that needs to be replaced.
State Del. Dereck Davis, chair of the House Economic Matters Committee, said he’s researching ideas for next session to expand the program and accelerate the pace at which crews are replacing outdated pipes.
“The reality is, when you have aging infrastructure that needs replacing, anything can happen with that,” he said. “We can’t put our communities and residents in harm’s way.”
Under STRIDE, BGE is specifically focusing on cast iron pipes and other outmoded, leak-prone material. The kind of gas infrastructure built along Labyrinth Road would not be targeted by the program.
Jason Stanek, chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission, said the company must “triage” the repairs because it would be unaffordable to tackle all the problems at once.
“We prioritize what projects need to be attended to first,” Stanek said. Still, the age of BGE’s infrastructure is a “standing concern” for the commission, which is charged with regulating utility companies.
The leaks also pose an environmental threat. When natural gas escapes, methane and carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
“All that methane getting leaked will impact all of us, particularly in a coastal state,” said Kate Breimann, state director of the advocacy group Environment Maryland. “That should really concern us.”
While the leaks continue, Chris Burton, BGE’s vice president for gas distribution, said crews respond quickly when the company receives complaints about a gas odor in a home or business. He recently testified that in 2019, workers responded to 99.97% of gas odor calls in 60 minutes or less.
BGE crews were immediately called to the site of the Northwest Baltimore explosion Monday morning, but said no gas odors had been reported to them earlier.
The utility company says it will continue to work with federal, state and local investigators to determine what caused the explosion.
Kelley said it’s vital that outside entities look into BGE’s claims to determine fault. The company is expected to file a report to the Public Service Commission in the next 30 days.
At the same time, the commission is considering what penalty to impose on BGE stemming from an August 2019 gas explosion at the Lakeside Office shopping center in Columbia. Concerns there involved not aging infrastructure, but the proximity of gas and electric lines.
Commission staff determined “BGE failed to provide for safe operation and maintenance of the facilities” serving the Howard County site, citing inadequate separation of underground gas and electric services. The report recommended the five-member PSC consider levying a $218,000 civil penalty against BGE.
The company said 250 locations throughout its Central Maryland service area have lines similar to those at the Columbia building.
Service to those locations is being redesigned to current industry best practices, the company said, including moving the electrical services outside trenches shared with gas pipes. The work is expected to be finished by next year.
In explaining its rationale for recommending a hefty penalty, commission staff noted the 2019 incident marked the second gas explosion involving BGE equipment in recent years. About four years earlier, a row of Columbia town houses was destroyed after a car struck piping while backing out of a garage, which allowed natural gas to escape and build-up until it was ignited.
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BGE was fined, and agreed to implement a multi-year plan to better protect gas meters exposed to traffic.