Photo by Emily Calkins

An August 2020 staff report of the Maryland Public Service Commission’s Engineering Department (PSCED) faults the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company (BGE) for the Aug. 25, 2019, explosion at the Lakeside Office Building on Stanford Boulevard in Columbia.

According to the report, pressure tests and subsequent excavation revealed three holes in the building’s service line, as well as an apparent electrical fault in a BGE electrical service cable supplying the building, although it remains unclear whether these facilities caused the explosion or were damaged as a result of the explosion.

According to the PSC report, BGE is conducting its own investigation and is unable to provide a more detailed root cause analysis of what triggered the event or accurately estimate when it will complete the investigation.

The PSCED report concludes that its evidence and analysis point to a sequence of events initiated by an underground secondary cable fault of unknown cause that degraded the polyethylene gas service piping. It also determined that the explosion originated in the building structure and not the parking lot.

Safety Violation

The Lakeside Office Building explosion mirrors a similar accident involving the Washington Gas Light Company in Loudon County, Va., in 1998. That accident resulted in one death, severe burns to one individual and slight injuries to two others.

A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation of that accident likewise found a hole in a gas service line located near faulted electric service lines.

The Commonwealth of Virginia approved legislation in 2000 to modify separation standards for underground gas and electric service lines to avoid melt-through incidents, but there are no federal regulations or national standards that address this issue.

The PSC report did find that BGE’s gas and electrical facilities involved in the explosion did not conform to U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration regulations or the Code of Maryland Regulations, constituting a safety violation.

BGE Response

In a statement issued to The Business Monthly, BGE said it was reviewing the PSCED’s report and intends to work closely with the PSC to address the issues in the report.

“BGE is currently instituting a number of changes to enhance the BGE system,” said Tasha Jamerson, a BGE spokesperson. “There are 250 locations like Stanford Boulevard and all are being redesigned with enhancements including relocation of the electrical services outside of trenches shared with gas pipes, the installations of curb valves, and the installation of enhanced conduit seal-offs for the electrical ducts.”

Jamerson said work has already begun and will be completed in 2021.

She added that BGE is working with experts to try to replicate the event in a laboratory but has not yet devised a procedure to perform this testing safely.

“While this potential work remains, BGE has identified a number of safety practices … as a result of the Stanford Boulevard investigation [that] we are now implementing to enhance our gas and electric system,” she said.

BGE could be fined $25,000 for each violation for each day that a violation persists under Maryland law but PSCED is recommending that the Public Service Commission issue a show cause order on whether the maximum civilian penalty of $218,647 should be imposed on BGE for the safety violations uncovered by the investigation.

The Aftermath

The Lakeside explosion displaced approximately 22 businesses, including a Social Security Administration (SSA) office whose employees were temporarily redeployed to other nearby offices.

“They will continue to handle workloads for residents in the Columbia area,” said Daniel O’Conner, a spokesperson for the SSA’s Philadelphia Regional Office.

He confirmed that the SSA intends to return to its Columbia Lakeside Office Building location after the owner rebuilds.

Holland Properties of York, Pa., the property owner, began demolition work on the damaged two-story building wing in January.

A commercial addition permit issued to Holland Properties by Howard County on May 7 approved a one-story and two-story addition and interior renovation of the existing one-story wing for the purpose of creating new shell space for future tenants.

Roger Holland, president of Holland Properties, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Technical Assistance

Following the explosion, the Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA) stepped in to help displaced businesses find new leases and navigate the insurance claim process.

“We provided some technical assistance in terms of financing or helping some of the businesses reestablish or consolidate operations,” said Larry Twele, HCEDA CEO. “We also helped find reemployment for the displaced workforce while their employers were reorganizing.”

Unfortunately, several of the businesses decided not to reopen.

“We were also able to help the property owner navigate the county’s permitting process,” Twele said. “We’re looking forward to seeing this property rebuilt to provide opportunities for businesses to come back. COVID-19 makes it more challenging to find those businesses right now, but by the time construction is complete we’ll hopefully be on the other side of this and fully leased in time for a reopening.”