Edward Segal documents the leaks obsessively.
The Georgetown resident has lived in his neighborhood off and on for 30 years. He is, by his own admission, protective of it. So whenever he sees a gas crew working on a leak in his neighborhood, he starts taking photos, sorting them by date and cross streets into their own folder on Google Drive.
Now he has two years’ worth of files. He has photos of fire trucks and police officers, gas crews and worried neighbors, neon orange cones and fresh asphalt, and “NO PARKING” signs. They pepper the eastern half of Georgetown, in clusters around 28th and Dumbarton streets NW, 29th and O streets NW, 29th and Dumbarton streets NW.
A public relations man by trade, he runs a website enumerating the leaks and his conversations with local officials about them: GeorgetownGasLeaks dot wordpress dot com. He meticulously recounts conversations with Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners and utility officials.
In total, Segal has documented 25 instances of gas leaks or other gas utility work in a span of 29 months, all in a radius of four blocks around his home, and seven of them on the 2800 block of O Street NW alone. The most recent of these leaks, on Sept. 15, was so intense that resident Evan Sheres could hear the gas leaking from its main line.
When it comes to finding leaks, sometimes Segal can smell the gas. But mostly it’s accidental––he sees workers while he’s out walking his dog, Charlie. Imagine, he asks, if he were looking for leaks? “I’d love to be able to have the gas company do a thorough audit of the last 20 years and find out the true nature of health of our gas systems,” Segal says.
In 2014, an environmental scientist and ecologist at Duke University tried to do just that, driving across 1,500 miles of roadways in D.C. with methane detection equipment to gauge the structural integrity of the city’s gas infrastructure. Robert Jackson, the researcher, found about 6,000 natural gas leaks across the city.
It’s not a surprise for a city with aging pipes: About 409 miles of the city’s gas mains are cast- or wrought-iron, which are “among those pipelines that pose the highest risk” of deteriorating, according to the federal Department of Transportation. Washington Gas has been in the process of replacing these mains for years.
And the recent series of natural gas explosions from old pipes across Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley did little to comfort Segal and his neighbors about the consequences of constantly patching corroding gas mains that need to be fully replaced.
“It’s annoying to feel unsafe, because we’re not the experts,” Segal says. “We all have to put a lot of faith and trust that the utility company is telling us the truth. With every new incident of a gas leak, my faith and trust is being chipped away by their own activity. We don’t have gas meters or detection equipment.”
Washington Gas Light Co., D.C.’s gas company, did not comment on Jackson’s 2014 report at the time. In response to City Paper’s questions about this study and broader concerns about transparency between the company and residents, a spokesperson from Washington Gas says that it has “received a few calls with reports of natural gas odor from customers in Georgetown in and around that area. We responded immediately to make necessary repairs where needed. All of the repairs have either occurred already or are scheduled to take place soon.”
The spokesperson added that Washington Gas uses a door hanger insert to “notify residents in the neighborhoods when we are conducting leak repair service” as well as provides contact information for the crew supervisor for people who have questions about repair work. “We will continue to be responsive when responding to odor calls and are committed to ensuring safety,” the spokesperson says.
One incident in particular disturbs Segal. In March 2017, he says, he had a gas leak directly in front of his house. Washington Gas employees began a repair, but the project stalled for about three weeks. “When I contacted the gas company to ask when the work would be completed, they said they had no record of the work being done in the first place,” he says. “It wasn’t until a gas company worker knocked on my door and asked what was going on with it that it was fixed.”
This is Segal’s sticking point: There’s no efficient way to track maintenance requests, gas leaks, or other emergency repairs. He describes conversations with Washington Gas employees as fruitless and says that from its executives, “All I get is boilerplate, their commitment to safety,” he says.
He points to other jurisdictions, like Massachusetts, where legislatures have passed robust environmental safety laws that require gas companies to use a grading system for leaks and provide information about the location of gas leaks. And New York’s conEdison has an interactive web page that categorizes gas leaks by borough and severity, allowing users to submit their ZIP code or address to see where leaks have been reported.
(Washington Gas does have a searchable map that shows ongoing WGL service projects, but it does not appear to flag gas leaks, and as of press time, there aren’t any advisories listed in Georgetown.)
Segal sent City Paper a document outlining seven measures he’d like to see Washington Gas take to increase transparency, including better engaging with Advisory Neighborhood Commissions to update residents about repairs.
His neighbors, many of whom have lived in the neighborhood for decades, agree.
Rose Mendoza, 73, first lived in Georgetown when she was in her 20s and moved back to the neighborhood about 15 years ago. “I always sort of note, oh yeah, this is still going on. It’s so constant—it certainly is constant, and we certainly don’t hear anything from the city about it,” she says.
Her continuous proximity to the repair work has even become a running joke in her family. “I moved from Glover Park because they started tearing up the streets over there, and then they started doing it here,” she laughs. “There’s yellow danger tape all over the place, trucks, people screaming all over 29th Street, dumpsters all over the place. You can’t compare it to a war zone, but one is tempted to,” she says, then pauses. “That was irreverent.”
Her “main complaint” is a perceived lack of transparency: She never knows what the crews are working on, or why, or when they’ll be done. “I always sort of hear, or you read something in the news or whatever—neighborhood papers—that the pipes are all deteriorating. But it would be useful to know if there’s a plan to fix them,” she says.
“It’s just a giant nuisance,” she sighs.
Another of their neighbors, 79-year-old Nola Klamberg, lives on the 2800 block of O Street NW. She’s lived in the eastern part of Georgetown for the better part of 40 years and says Washington Gas “keeps coming back every few months and doing something. I can’t figure out why it can’t finally get resolved, you know what I’m saying? I can’t figure out why the city has so much trouble getting this problem solved.”
And Segal, as ever, is right there with her.
“I’ve never had as much sense of connecting with a community as I’ve had here,” he says. “It’s part of the magic of living in Washington. The people are friendly, they’re concerned, and increasingly they’re outraged over [Washington Gas’] conduct and lack of accountability. I’m going to keep fighting for our community until this is resolved.”
This article has been updated to reflect Edward Segal’s new website address, WashingtonGasLeaks dot WordPress dot com.