City declines to reimburse residents after gas main break damages appliances

Joan Sheckells, top left, Regina Sheckells, lower left, Patricia Sheckells, center, white shirt, and Renee Washington talk about trying to get appliances repaired.
Joan Sheckells, top left, Regina Sheckells, lower left, Patricia Sheckells, center, white shirt, and Renee Washington talk about trying to get appliances repaired. (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron)

Renee Washington says she's not asking for special treatment from City Hall. The 58-year-old paraplegic just wants to make sure she and her neighbors are reimbursed for the stoves and water heaters damaged during a Valentine's Day gas main break that caused water to rush into their appliances.

"We want to make hot meals for our families," says Washington, a resident of the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood of Mill Hill, who is attempting to organize her neighbors to action. "We want to take hot showers and baths."

About 1,000 homes in Mill Hill and nearby Carrollton Ridge lost gas for nearly a week after the Feb. 14 break in the 300 block of Millington Ave. City officials initially said that a hunk of asphalt from the street tumbled onto the gas line while a Department of Public Works crew was repairing a water main beneath it. When the city is responsible for causing such damages, residents are entitled to seek reimbursement.

But four months later, the city's law department is now denying that city workers had anything to do with the break — and denying claims for damaged appliances that city workers initially encouraged residents to file.

"They're changing their story," said Mill Hill homeowner Joan Sheckells, 44, whose family paid $350 for her water heater to be replaced. "It's a lot of aggravation."

About 45 residents filed claims for up to $500 to replace or repair appliances damaged or destroyed when water entered the gas line, according to City Solicitor George Nilson.

The residents, such as James Briggs, 54 — whose stove remains broken four months after the incident — believe the claims are being turned down in part because they live in an economically depressed part of the city and don't have political clout.

"We may live in the ghetto, but we're not stupid," said Washington, a renter whose landlord paid $500 for her stove to be replaced. She says that while some residents are asking to be repaid for appliances they have fixed or replaced, others are still living without a working stove or water heater because they can't afford the cost.

The city's account of what happened has changed over time. In February, a Department of Public Works news release described the incident this way: "While DPW crews were working to fix a broken 10-inch water main, a section of asphalt dislodged and fell on the gas line."

BGE, which owns the gas line, agreed. "The four-inch gas main was damaged at approximately 3:30 p.m. by a non-BGE crew making repairs to a Baltimore City water main," a release from the company said.

Since many of the neighborhood's rowhouses were vacant, the utility company worked with city police and firefighters — and a local locksmith — to forcibly enter homes if they couldn't get in touch with residents or building owners. The city made a shelter available for affected residents, and some picked up water, meals and blankets there. MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakeand Public Works Director Alfred Foxx visited the neighborhoods.

City inspectors marked which appliances were damaged during the break and provided those residents claim forms to submit for reimbursements, city officials and residents agree. A public works spokesman said the claims would be processed in 30 days.

Several residents, including Briggs, say city inspectors verbally assured them their expenses would be covered. "Fill out the form and the city will replace your stove," he recalls an inspector telling him.

Later, however, the city determined that the gas line was already broken when its workers arrived to repair the water main, according to law and public works officials. They say the damage to appliances was not the city's fault — and as a result have denied the reimbursement claims.

"While any property damage you suffered is truly unfortunate, there is no evidence that the water main broke because of a negligent act by the city or its employees," wrote Aaron W. Whitcomb, the law department's special investigations supervisor.

In an email, the Public Works Department said it has become "pretty clear that the water main and gas line broke at the same time." Foxx said he can't say why inspectors would have told residents they would be reimbursed, but noted it was the city's Law Department that denied the claims.

Nilson, the city solicitor, said in an email that the gas main break was "caused by a totally unpredictable rupture in our water main of which we had no notice and no reason to anticipate — and there was no evidence that City personnel were negligent in addressing the ruptures once they were discovered in any way that caused damage to claimants."

He said the city is "only liable for instances where it is negligent either in not fixing a problem before it causes harm or in responding to ruptures/breaks when they occur. Our infrastructure is very old and we are not legally required to know in advance where a water main might one day give out."

The head of one neighborhood advocacy group says it's not unusual for government agencies to give different accounts over time and for residents to feel let down.

"Promises will be made. People get excited about them. Then something else will happen. There's always something that comes back and takes the promises away," said Kristine J. Dunkerton, director of the Community Law Center. "Its something we find frustrating and disappointing."

Washington and her neighbors say they are still holding out hope the city will reconsider. Several residents have appealed the rejection letters to the head of the law department's litigation group.

"We're not saying they did it on purpose," Washington said of the break. "We are not asking for a lot. We just want our quality of life restored."



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