Edward Segal is a longtime resident of Georgetown.
Why doesn’t Washington Gas want us to know about potential dangers to our safety that may be buried under our streets?
Although there have been dozens of natural gas leaks in my Georgetown neighborhood since 2016, the utility company has not said a word about the number, nature, seriousness or status of the leaks. Its claims notwithstanding, there is no evidence that Washington Gas notifies residents about work in our community.
It was not until last October, thanks to the media, that we received a glimmer of information about Georgetown’s gas-leak situation. For a story about a new leak in the neighborhood, WJLA-TV was told by the utility company that there had been more than 50 other incidents in our community since January 2017.
But Washington Gas failed again to provide full disclosure. Gas leaks are labeled according to how serious they are: Grades 1, 2 or 3. The utility company divulged only the number of the most hazardous leaks (Grade 1). When all three categories are included, the final tally for Georgetown could be in the hundreds, according to independent gas safety expert Bob Ackley. How many lesser leaks will become more serious? We can only guess.
Georgetown is not alone. Considering when Washington’s gas pipeline infrastructure was built, this is potentially a citywide issue. Indeed, a 2014 story by The Post reported that there were almost 6,000 gas leaks under the city’s streets, according to a study by researchers at Duke and Boston universities. Speaking last month at the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E meeting, Cheryl Morse of the D.C. Office of the People’s Counsel said her agency is clueless about the cause of the persistent gas leaks.
But unless the gas company or D.C. government provides complete details about the leaks and repairs, there is no way to know the extent or level of danger to the public.
It can be dangerous to assume anything about the safety of natural gas pipelines.
After a series of unexplained gas leaks and repairs in front of my house, in the summer of 2017 I filed complaints against Washington Gas with the OPC and the D.C. Public Service Commission. I asked for accountability, communication and transparency about our own natural gas-leak problems.
Nothing has changed.
Elected officials have yet to say or do anything publicly about this serious problem. Their staffs sent me in circles. The mayor’s office referred me to Washington Gas. The OPC said it would not try to require more disclosures from Washington Gas. A PSC staff member sent me links to the gas company’s website pages about, ironically, its commitment to natural gas pipeline safety.
In September, working through the OPC, I submitted a list of questions to Washington Gas about its handling of natural gas leaks. Many answers were inaccurate, unresponsive or raised even more questions. Several responses were contrary to my experience, observations and documentation of gas leaks in my neighborhood.
Twice, while I was taking photographs from a safe distance of subcontractors working at leak sites, repair crews made it clear they weren’t happy someone was documenting their activities.
Meanwhile, the number of gas leaks and repairs since 2016 continues to climb: 64 and counting. In October, a record may have been set with at least five — and as many as eight — new gas leaks on the same day around the corner from each other. Some streets and intersections have been the site of multiple incidents within a short period. I have started documenting incidents on my website, GeorgetownGasLeaks.com.
We need full and daily public disclosure from Washington Gas about our natural gas leaks and what is being done to fix and prevent them. The law requires the utility company to keep the D.C. government informed and updated about all leaks and repairs. At the very least, Washington Gas or public officials should share that information with the public — in an easily understandable format, accessible through social media and online maps of current leaks and repairs.
D.C. residents should have confidence in and peace of mind about the potential dangers to our safety that are hidden beneath our streets. We certainly do not have it now.