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Firefighters: Md. gas pipe replacement plan must be approved

Headlines of gas explosions have brought home the importance of eliminating gas leaks, particularly in our older neighborhoods. Incidents like the one on the morning of March 12th, 2014, when leaking gas from 124 year-old pipelines ignited, leveling two East Harlem apartment buildings, killing 8, injuring 70 and displacing 100 families. Or a year and half later, when New York Fire Battalion Chief Michael Fahy lost his life after he was struck by debris from a gas explosion, and more than a dozen first responders suffered injuries.

The explosion that killed Chief Fahy, along with other incidents over the past several years, including here in Maryland, highlight the deep concern shared among firefighters for the dangers of natural gas leaks and explosions from aging gas systems in need of replacement. In older areas of the country, elements of cities' gas delivery systems can be well over 100 years old.

That’s why the Professional Fire Fighters of Maryland support Maryland's STRIDE law, which accelerates efforts that BGE and other natural gas utilities serving the state are making to modernize the gas system, making it safer and more reliable.

We recognize natural gas is used safely in our homes and businesses on a broad scale. However, while natural gas explosions are rare, they pose a serious risk that all firefighters hope to avoid.

The fact is, many of these incidents are preventable. The vast majority of gas leaks are the result of problems with old materials — such as copper, cast iron and bare steel — used in the pipes that pump natural gas to our homes, particularly in our older cities like Baltimore and New York. Those materials do not meet the strict industry safety standards of today

There is no doubt that these old pipes need to be replaced. But that cannot happen overnight, as there are thousands of miles of old pipes throughout Maryland. It is both very costly and very time-consuming to replace old pipelines in developed areas.

In our state, BGE and other gas utilities have been working on the daunting task of replacing all of the old pipe. The pace was initially slow, and it was first estimated in 2013 that over 70 years would be needed to replace all 2,000 miles of BGE's oldest pipe materials. But after the federal government sounded the alarm, Maryland followed other states to develop a program to expedite the replacement of gas infrastructure, and the state legislature passed the Strategic Infrastructure Development and Enhancement (STRIDE) law with bipartisan support. The program creates a pay-as-you-go cost recovery mechanism through a capped, $2 a month surcharge on residential customer bills that helps accelerate the timeline for project completion, while increasing oversight and accountability.

In the first four full years of STRIDE, BGE has cut its overall replacement timeline by more than half, from 70 to less than 30 years. By the end of 2018, BGE will wrap up its first approved five-year plan under the STRIDE program, replacing nearly 200 miles of the riskiest pipe — much of which was in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Now, BGE is seeking a new five-year program under the plan before the Maryland Public Service Commission; it is the first of the state utilities to do so. If they don't get approval, the replacement of gas infrastructure will take longer.

Failure to approve this new STRIDE plan would deal a devastating blow to the replacement efforts and jeopardize the safety of the public and our firefighters on the front lines.

Michael Rund is president of the Professional Firefighters of Maryland; his email is mikerund@comcast.net.

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