Associated Press

Flower Branch Residents Say Gas Smell Still a Problem Years After Deadly Explosion

Nearly three years after an explosion killed seven people at a Silver Spring, Maryland, apartment complex, tenants say the smell of gas and gas leaks at the community have continued and they want Washington Gas to act.

The explosion at the garden-style Flower Branch apartments on Aug. 10, 2016, killed two children and five adults. Dozens more were injured, including three firefighters.

In April, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said a failed mercury service regulator and an unconnected vent line lead to a natural gas leak that accumulated in the building's meter room until it exploded.

Tenants at Flower Branch voiced their concerns about continued reports of a strong gas scent at a news conference Wednesday. 

One resident said he smelled gas in the basement of his building when he came home from church one day in April. The laundry facilities and gas meters are both located in the basement at Flower Branch.

The Spanish-speaking resident said he called Washington Gas and they told him someone would come check out the issue in the next half hour, but no one ever showed up.

"We are human beings. We are not animals. We want to make sure that we are protected," he said.

Activists with CASA de Maryland got involved and said Washington Gas fixed the issue last week, more than 20 days after the resident reported the problem.

Washington Gas confirmed to News4's news partner Telemundo 44 that it responded to "minor leaks" at the complex.

"Washington Gas has been diligent and proactive about monitoring and maintaining the natural gas infrastructure that serves the Flower Branch Apartment complex to ensure safety and reliability," the company said in a statement.

"In February, we initiated a special leak survey of our equipment in the complex where we use diagnostic tools to detect any leaks. As a result of the inspection, we detected and repaired three minor leaks in the complex. On May 2, Washington Gas responded to an odor call where a resident reported the smell of natural gas, and we immediately repaired a minor leak on a meter set."

The company said it has repaired a few minor leaks at the complex this year. It said Kay Management notified it of gas odor complaints after the residents' news conference was announced, and the company identified and repaired minor leaks on five meter sets and is inspecting all meter rooms at the complex for more leaks.

Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker said Washington Gas has told him it would move the gas regulators at Flower Branch to the outside of the buildings during the summer and fall. Hucker said the gas company should expand that commitment to all multi-family properties in its service area.

"Washington Gas can afford it. It's the least they can do to meet their responsibilities and keep all their customers safe," Hucker said at the news conference.

"It's unacceptable that we're here two-and-a-half years later asking for the same basic safety needs to be kept by Washington Gas and Kay Management," At-large Council member Will Jawando said.

"We're going to be on you. Like we haven't been on you in the past," Jawando said of the companies.

Maryland State Del. Lorig Charkoudian said she has asked the Public Service Commission to hold Washington Gas accountable for the requirements and recommendations the NTSB made in its report.

Installing regulators outside rather than inside so any venting occurs safely into the atmosphere was among the NTSB's recommendations.

"If the current state law implemented by the Public Service Commission is not sufficient to move these regulators outside, to hold Washington Gas accountable, then we'll be looking at what state law changes need to be made and I'm committing to do that," Charkoudian said.

Hucker said Washington Gas has replaced the mercury-based regulators at the apartment complex, another NTSB recommendation.

Hucker advised residents to immediately call 911 if they smell gas.

"You don't have to worry about your immigration status. They will not take your personal info," he said.

The NTSB spent nearly three years investigating the explosion. The board took the lead in the investigation because it has jurisdiction over gas-pipeline accidents.

Washington Gas disputed the NTSB's findings.

"As a participant in this investigation, we worked side by side with the NTSB to fully understand what transpired that night," the statement said. "However, we disagree with their findings as we don’t believe the evidence indicates failure of our equipment that night. We also do not believe the NTSB sufficiently investigated the other potential causes of the explosion."

Residents in the area had reported smelling natural gas for several weeks before the 2016 explosion. They alerted property management and made at least one 911 call weeks before the explosion. However, Washington Gas was not notified, according to the NTSB.

"We missed a very good opportunity to possibly have stopped this whole thing," said NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg.

Read the full statement from Washington Gas regarding the recent gas leaks:

First and foremost, the Washington Gas family continues to extend our thoughts and prayers to the victims, families and members of the community impacted by the tragedy that occurred at the Flower Branch Apartments on August 10, 2016.

As always, safety is a priority in how we serve our customers and it is core to our company culture. We are dedicated to consistently delivering natural gas safely and reliably every day.

We recognize that residents who lived at the complex at the time of the explosion understandably have a heightened concern about natural gas odor reports. We remain committed to working with the community to ensure they know what to do if they think they smell natural gas.

Washington Gas wants to emphasize that anyone who suspects they smell natural gas to contact 911, then 844-WASHGAS, right away. Washington Gas investigates every report, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Washington Gas has been diligent and proactive about monitoring and maintaining the natural gas infrastructure that serves the Flower Branch Apartment complex to ensure safety and reliability. In the weeks following the incident, Washington Gas did inspect its equipment at the complex and updated the regulator equipment in the complex.

Through the first four months of this year, we have repaired a few minor leaks at the complex.

Following the announcement of the community press conference yesterday, Kay Management notified Washington Gas of gas odor complaints not previously reported to Washington Gas. Washington Gas responded immediately, identified minor leaks on five meter sets and is making the necessary repairs. Washington Gas is now proactively inspecting all meter rooms at the complex for leaks and will make any repairs necessary.

To increase awareness among residents that they should always call 911 and Washington Gas in addition to their management company, we plan to work with Kay Management to visit every apartment in the complex and deliver safety and Washington Gas contact information.

Also, in conjunction with expected Purple Line construction this year, Washington Gas will be replacing our main and service lines in the Flower Branch community, including moving the gas regulators to the exterior of the buildings.

Finally, as a reminder, any resident who thinks they smell natural gas should call 911 and Washington Gas 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 844-WASHGAS. Reports can be made anonymously.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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