By: Carlo Massimo
Something strange is happening in Georgetown. Nancy Flinn, an east Georgetown resident, has found herself suffering from inexplicable headaches in her apartment. Earlier this month, she smelled gas leaking – at home, where she has no gas service.
Gail Daubert, who has lived near the corner of 28th Street, NW and M Street, NW for about 20 years, normally pays about $20 per month in gas. She was shocked to find her September Washington Gas bill at almost $150. Her usage that month was normal.
Katherine Tallmadge paid a total of $716.92 for gas in 2015, $620 in 2016, and $3,495.21 in 2017. Like Daubert, her gas usage had not changed much since 2016.
Both Flinn and Daubert report experiencing the overwhelming smell of gas fumes while walking through Georgetown. According to Daubert, this regular smell of gas started around the beginning of September. The Current heard similar reports from other Georgetown residents.
Edward Segal, who lives on the 2800 block of O Street, NW, curates a blog specifically about gas problems in Georgetown. “To date,” he told the Current, “there have been at least 36 gas leaks in my neighborhood since April 2016,” which he says “is likely a conservative number.” His blog shows photos of repairs and streets blocked off by Washington Gas trucks. In fact, another gas leak occurred this afternoon.
Ever since gas leaks caused a series of deadly explosions around Andover, Massachusetts last month, the threat of gas explosions has kept many Georgetown residents on edge.
Most residents who came forward with gas leak complaints pointed a finger at Washington Gas, a WGL company. In a statement to The Current, Washington Gas insisted that “safety is our number one priority.”
“The number of repairs we make are fairly consistent year over year,” the statement continued, “and we have not seen an increase an increase in leaks in the Georgetown area.” In fact, D.C. has experienced a nearly 20 percent reduction in total Department of Transportation (DDOT) reportable leaks between 2014 and 2017.
“This week, the Georgetown area underwent a routine leak survey… part of normal compliance work we perform across out service territory. Washington Gas conducts these surveys in three years cycles to inspect our system and gather actionable data,” the statement said. “A few leaks were identified and we responded immediately.”
A Washington Gas representative also told The Current that an unusually high gas bill was not necessarily an indicator of a gas leak. In early October, he said, Washington Gas received a few calls about a smell of gas, but responded immediately.
Segal was less than convinced. Washington Gas “has not taken any of action on any of my concerns or suggestions, answers only in platitudes about safety, and has made it clear that they do not intend to change their behavior in connection with communicating with the public about the continuing gas leak problem.”
Daubert shares his opinion of Washington Gas. “Who is going to take ownership of this problem, so that we feel safe in our homes? Washington Gas doesn’t seem concerned. They have no sense of community,” she said, citing a lack of communication on the company’s part and a propensity to farm out their gas line work to subcontractors.
Whether or not Washington Gas is at fault, either for negligent gas work or just for poor communication is still an open question. And that’s another common complaint in east Georgetown. The District hasn’t stepped in yet. So far it seems only Jim Wilcox of ANC 2E has issued any kind of statement, and it was a fairly noncommittal one.
Wilcox and ANC Chair Joe Gibbons met in 2017 with Bob Ackley, a gas leak expert, who assured commissioners that he had not identified any leaks that posed a Massachusetts-type threat. Last year, Ackley wrote an assessment about the gas safety issue in Georgetown.
“But the bad news is that no community can afford to be lulled into a false sense of confidence about the safety of their gas pipelines. To paraphrase [former House Speaker] Tip O’Neill, “All gas pipeline safety issues are local.”“Indeed, last Thursday’s gas pipeline-related leaks, explosions and fires outside of Boston or other similar disasters could be repeated in Georgetown and thousands of other communities around the country. The added problem in your community is that it may take up to 30 years for a main replacement project to be completed, depending on where that particular street is on the replacement list.”
Furthermore, Wilcox advised residents to enroll in AlertDC, D.C.’s official communications system that allows residents to select emergency alerts and notifications from D.C.’s public safety officials.
Segal says AlertDC does not issue alerts about gas leaks. But he is asking that they do in his 10-point plan for reforms and improvements.
Segal says Councilmembers Jack Evans, Brandon Todd, Elissa Silverman, and Brianne Nadeau have not responded to his requests. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office didn’t respond, either. The DC Public Service Commission and DC Office of the People’s Counsel have dragged their feet on the issue, too. Neither ANC 2E nor Evans’ office responded to The Current’s inquiries.
So, what is going on Georgetown, and how worried should residents be? It’s unclear. ANC 2E will hold a meeting October 29 at 6:30 to discuss the matter. All are welcome to attend and speak. But one meeting will hardly clear the air.