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Despite Report, Pr. George's Gas Fears Intense

Residents Challenge Company's Explanations, Promises to Md. Commission

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page C05

Doreen Allen was not surprised to see her address among the approximately 1,400 homes that have known active natural gas leaks in Prince George's County. She began smelling gas outside her District Heights home soon after she bought it about 2 1/2 years ago.

She first called Washington Gas in June 2003. A few days later, technicians examined the service lines outside the house, in the 7000 block of Halleck Street, and told her not to worry because the vapors were not entering her home. Two visits later, that assessment did not change. Allen believed them.

The lawn at Doreen Allen's home on Halleck Street is covered with holes dug by Washington Gas technicians investigating the source of odorous leaks. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

Then in March, a house less than a mile away exploded. Allen began to worry.

In a report sent to the Maryland Public Service Commission on Friday, Washington Gas listed the exact locations of about 1,400 leaks it has found in a 100-square-mile area of the county, primarily south of Route 50, in towns including Oxon Hill, Seat Pleasant and Capitol Heights. It said it considered the leaks nonhazardous because the vapors were underground and not traveling into homes. And it promised to fix them within six months.

"That's not good enough for me," Allen said yesterday as she stood on a lawn covered with holes that had been dug by Washington Gas technicians investigating the leaks as recently as Wednesday.

It's not good enough for some local officials, either.

"Maybe I'm showing my ignorance, but I don't understand how leaks can be nonhazardous," said County Council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville). "I would assume any kind of leak has the potential to be hazardous."

Several residents whose addresses appear on the list of houses with leaks said yesterday that they had been smelling gas off and on for many months, in some cases years. Most said that the odor remained outside their homes.

But Sharron Brown said there were times last fall when she smelled gas in her house in the 7200 block of Roanne Drive in Oxon Hill. Washington Gas technicians arrived about a week after she called, and the odor virtually vanished, she said.

"What are you going to do?" she asked. "You just have to hope it's not your house that's going to blow."

District Heights resident Brian Thomas Sr. said he, too, noticed an odor of gas inside his home in the 6900 block of Halleck Street a few times over the past year. "I worked so hard to buy this house," he said as he dropped off food to an elderly neighbor. "I don't want to lose what I have."

Tim Sargeant, a spokesman for Washington Gas, said that what the residents were smelling inside their homes was not the actual vapor, but the substance the company adds to the colorless, odorless gas to make it detectable. The odorant, but not the vapor, is traveling into the homes, he said.

That was little comfort to county and state officials and residents, who questioned why it took the company so long to reveal the extent of the problem.

"Obviously, if they've been working on it for a year and a half, they haven't been working very fast," said Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's). "A two-year solution for something like this is not a quick response."

Since the explosion in District Heights, Washington Gas officials have acknowledged that they had noticed an increase in the volume of complaints from Prince George's residents about a year and a half ago. They hired researchers to investigate and discovered that the rubber seals within mechanical couplings that link service lines were deteriorating. Although service lines with couplings were installed in counties throughout the Washington region up until the 1970s, Prince George's is the only place with a high number of leaks. The company is still investigating why.

Sargeant said that the company notified the Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities across the state, of the problem before the District Heights explosion. The commission opened an inquiry into the leaks earlier this month and ordered Washington Gas to provide Friday's report.

In that report, Washington Gas officials also promised to repair or replace all the non-leaking service lines that contain the faulty couplings by 2007. "We are devoting $75 million just to this, so the company is very, very committed to making sure this is addressed," Sargeant said.

Allen, who lives with her 11-year-old son, said she will continue to check her gas meter and valves daily until her property's leak is fixed. She has also gotten into the habit of getting up in the middle of the night to check for odors. "Every day," she said, "it's like, 'What if?' "

© 2005 The Washington Post Company