We Need Full Public Disclosure About Natural Gas Leaks

OVERVIEW

Now we know: 117 natural gas leaks in Georegtown…and counting.

Washington Gas has confirmed that there were 106 natural gas leaks in Washington DC’s historic Georgetown community between 2016 and sometime in November, 2018. This figure is about 50% higher than previously published reports that were based on my limited research and incomplete figures from Washington Gas. I sought the more comprehensive and detailed information as part of my two-year campaign to require full public disclosure by Washington Gas about Georgetown’s long-standing natural gas leak problem.

The updated tally reflects the new data that I requested in November 2018 and received in early December 2018 from the utility company through the DC Office of the People’s Counsel. There is no evidence that Washington Gas has ever informed the community about the number, nature, seriousness, or repair of any of the leaks.

Because of the new gas leaks that have occurred since November, the unofficial number of gas leaks now stands at 117.

Public Service Commission to Hold Hearing on Gas Leak Reporting Requirements

The DC Public Service Commission, which regulates Washington Gas, has agreed to schedule a community hearing on natural gas leak reporting requirements early next year. Anyone will be able to speak or submit statements, letters or emails with their comments. Look for the date and details in a public notice that the Commission will issue about the session.

I am pleased that the Commission will provide us with an opportunity to discuss and answer questions about this urgent public safety issue.

How Gas Leaks are Classified and Prioritized

Natural gas leaks are labeled according to how serious they are. Grade 1 leaks present an immediate or probable hazard to persons or property, and require immediate repair or continuous action until the conditions are no longer hazardous; grade 2 leaks are recognized as being non-hazardous at the time of detection, but require scheduled repair based on probable future hazard; and grade 3 leaks are non-hazardous at the time of detection and can be reasonably expected to remain non-hazardous.

A Breakdown of the 106 Gas Leaks

As they reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington Gas said there was a total of 106 gas leaks between 2016 and part of November 2018. This includes 72 grade 1 leaks, 28 grade 2 leaks, and 6 grade 3 leaks. Because of the number of new leaks that have occurred since November, the final figures for the three year period will be higher. The unofficial tally is 116 as of December 14.

Washington Gas said it does not track and therefore could not provide information about grade 2 leaks that were upgraded to grade 1 leaks in Georgetown. They objected to several of my requests for detailed information about the number, location, and seriousness of gas leaks in Georgetown “on the grounds that it requires the preparation of a special study.” They did not say how I could go about requesting those special studies or if it would conduct those studies if asked.

A Failure to Communicate

In 2014 there were almost 6,000 natural gas leaks beneath the streets of Washington D.C., according to a study by researchers at Duke and Boston universities and reported by the Washington Post. 

Until recently we could only speculate how bad the situation is today in Georgetown.

We could do nothing but speculate because of the lack of accountability, transparency, and communication by Washington Gas Light (WGL).

The utility company makes it impossible for the public to find out how safe — or dangerous — our gas pipelines are, what it is doing to protect and repair the pipelines, or even the frequency and nature of current gas pipeline leaks and repairs. WGL does not communicate with ratepayers and the general public about the repairs or the likelihood of future repairs.

As part of WGL’s response to a complaint I filed in 2017 against them with the DC Public Service Commission, the utility company said that, “We do not use an automated system to update area residents on gas odor calls or emergencyx leak repairs.”

The Truth Starts to Come Out

On October 19, 2018, Scott Taylor, an investigative reporter with WJLA-TV, started to get some of the truth from Washington Gas: they told him that were 56 natural gas leaks in Georgetown between January 2017 and the day Taylor’s report aired. To see the WJLA story, click here. On November 26, 2018 WRC-TV aired a story as well. Click here to watch it.

The bad news is there have been more gas leaks in Georgetown than we knew. Depending on how those leaks were determined, calculated, and reported, and which government agency provided the numbers, the final tally could go much higher.

Setting a Record

A record was set in October with at least 5 — and perhaps as many as 8 — new gas leaks on the same day in the same neighborhood. Some intersections, such as Dumbarton and 28th Streets, NW and O and 31st Streets, NW have experienced multiple gas leaks within a matter of days.

Public officials have taken no action to address this urgent situation or say they are powerless to do anything about it. News organizations are paying attention, however. Go to the News Coverage page to see more stories about Georgetown’s gas leak saga.

Washington Gas Can’t Explain Clusters of Natural Gas Leaks in Georgetown

A Washington Gas official said on December 3 that “we have not seen any pattern that indicates there is some systemic issues going on” that would account for the recent gas leaks in Georgetown. “There are different problems,” he said.

Referring to the more than 60 natural gas leaks that have occurred in clusters in our community since 2016, Stephen Price, Assistant Vice President of Safety, Quality, and System Protection for Washington Gas said, “there is not a specific reason why certain leaks have happened within a few blocks [of each other]. There is a different reason for each one. We look at each one.”

Price and other Washington Gas officials spoke at a meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E that represents Georgetown, Burleith, and Hillandale.

In response to questions from ANC Commissioner Jim Wilcox, Price said that “each leak has been responded to and repaired. There are different problems. You have an aging system. We have leaks across the system. There is no one fix, short of completely replacing the system over time. And we are doing that, but that is a longer timeframe than most are comfortable with.”

Later in the meeting I asked Price why, even though repair crews have worn hazmat-type protective clothing at some gas leaks sites, the community was not told about the potentially dangerous situations. He said there was no need to inform the public because their safety was never at risk. Price did not respond to my follow-up questions about why, in order to assure people about such matters, Washington Gas doesn’t educate the public about its notification policies and protocols or why it does not communicate directly with the public about natural gas leaks.

I disputed Price’s claim that Washington Gas places door hanger cards on adjacent houses to inform residents about nearby leak repair work. I said that I have never seen such notices or knew of anyone who has.

John O’Brien, Executive Vice President of Strategy and Public Affairs for Washington Gas said, “what I want to say to you tonight is that we can get better at communication. We want to get into a regular program of communication through the ANC.” But he did not provide any specifics or timeline for improving the utility company’s communication with residents or providing them with full daily public disclosure of the growing number of natural gas leaks and repairs in Georgetown.

About this Website

This site is resource for information and updates about the urgent public safety issue of Georgetown’s gas leaks.  I launched the site after a series of gas leaks in my neighborhood, seeing news reports about the deadly gas pipeline fires and explosions in the Boston suburbs last September, and my continued frustration with the gas company and their failure to keep my community posted about local natural gas leaks and repairs.

Edward Segal

December 18, 2018