Looking up at power lines
Pepco power lines Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

New homeowners in D.C. often encounter hurdles as they navigate real estate agents, property taxes, and new home repairs. But one D.C. resident added gas poisoning to the list as well.

Ms. Fox, who asked to be identified only by her last name, like many D.C. residents, had a gas stove in the two condominium units she bought in a fourplex building in Northeast. This was her first home purchase in D.C., but she previously had been a landlord for 20 years in the Pacific Northwest and has experience managing a homeless shelter and a transitional housing complex. 

But these management experiences did not prepare her for months of frustration in her largely fruitless efforts to get reliable assistance from Washington Gas to address more than 13 gas leaks in her condo building and a $40,000 repair job that nearly cost her her life.

“Most people don’t have time for this kind of messy,” Fox says.

She purchased her first unit in the fourplex in 2016 and then rented it out when she purchased the second unit in 2020. Problems started when the condo association decided to re-insulate the building’s exposed subfloors in November 2021, essentially sealing the structure. Around the same time, Fox had a used gas stove installed in one of the units. Supply chain issues due to the pandemic caused a five-week wait for a new gas stove, she says.

Fox traveled out of D.C. shortly after the building’s updates were completed, and when she returned in late December 2021, she began experiencing health issues—stomach and lower back pains, trouble sleeping, nausea, and headaches—but with no obvious cause. She says she spoke to her doctor, visited urgent care, and went through sleep apnea tests, but no one could find the root of her symptoms. Fox didn’t put the pieces together for months. But looking back now, she sees a clear connection between her declining health and rampant problems with her condo’s gas lines. 

Fox spent parts of the spring of 2022 traveling and visiting family, and her health improved. When she returned to D.C. in early June, with the unforgiving summer heat, she closed her windows and cranked up the air-conditioner for the first time that season. The next morning she picked up the smell of gas in her unit and throughout the building. On one particularly hot summer night, Fox went out for a walk and had to call a neighbor to walk her back to her apartment. “I thought I was going to pass out,” she says.

Fox then called Washington Gas to check the gas lines, and a WGL representative identified a leak running into her neighbor’s unit. WGL said the leak was repaired, but the smell of gas remained in Fox’s apartment. She thought maybe there was an issue with the air-conditioner, and she called in a couple HVAC technicians, but her HVAC unit was electric, the technicians explained. When one of the technicians conducted his own gas test, he found another leak in a line in her apartment. Again, WGL came to investigate, and resolved the issue. There had been some confusion about which line went into her unit because the meters had been incorrectly marked with Sharpie, leading WGL to turn off her downstairs neighbors gas instead, she says.

A spokesperson for WGL says, “Our Customer Experience team has been able to confirm that each gas leak that Ms. Fox called in, we responded to investigate and made the situation safe.”

Finally, Fox thought that would be the end of it. But the fourplex, which had been flipped roughly 12 years ago, had a lot of issues that needed attention, Fox says.  

When Fox’s friend and former coworker, Monica Beemer, came to visit, she says she immediately noticed the smell of gas. Beemer described it as a “gas garage” and nudged Fox to report the odor to WGL. This time, the utility company escalated the call.

On June 20, the WGL sent the report to the DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. According to FEMS spokesperson Vito Maggiolo, the agency responded “with 2 Engine companies and 1 truck company under the command of [the First Battalion] chief, a total of 15 personnel. That is the standard response for the report of an inside gas leak.” Maggiolo says FEMS personnel would have used either a QRae 3 or Sensit 2 gas detector, but their meters did not detect any gas in the apartment.

In their statement, WGL says: “on multiple occasions we danger tagged her house lines and turned the gas off informing her that she needed to get a certified gas contractor/plumber to make repairs. Ultimately, Washington Gas is responsible for all repairs to the gas lines up to the meter/building wall. Any repairs needed to the houseline and/or appliances are the responsibility of the homeowner. We respond to all leak calls and make the situation safe which in some cases may warrant the gas being turned off, like in this situation.”

The utility did not respond to questions on why this instance led them to issue a “danger tag,” while the other calls did not. But when the fire battalion left her apartment, Fox says, the crew commander instructed her to “stop calling the gas company.”

“I don’t think anyone was there trying to pull the wool over her eyes but, I think it’s just a system set up to not find these things,” Beemer says, looking back on her friend’s experience. None of the technicians seemed to be on the same page, she recalls, “and if there’s no universal standard [to these procedures] how can you know it’s safe?”

Finally, Fox ordered her own gas reader online (a tactic that has become popular among anti-gas activists), and the tool still detected gas in her apartment. She contacted a local plumber, and his own tests resulted in huge readings coming from the attic. The plumber found a large crack in Fox’s on-demand water heater and multiple gas line leaks elsewhere throughout the building. A black, soot-like substance surrounded the crack in the water heater. The plumber told Fox: “You see that? That’s carbon monoxide. You should be dead.”

“At that point there had been 25 men in my condo who could have caught [the crack in the water heater],” Fox says. She says she only had two gas-fed appliances in her home—the stove and the hot water heater—but the heater went unchecked by WGL technicians.

Beemer left D.C. to return home in the middle of Fox’s gas leak saga, but she says she felt comfortable knowing that her friend had “the resources and support she needed to figure this out.” But, she asks, what about the people who don’t?

“For someone to even look at you is like $400 in D.C.,” Fox says. 

In July, the plumber began what amounted to months of work to fix the leaks. At the end of the project, he patched 13 leaks in all, according to invoices Fox provided to City Paper. “This situation was beyond any regular person’s ability to solve,” she says, “If you were a renter or a new home owner, you would be completely under water.”

Fox’s story is one of the major concerns driving recent outcry over the hundreds of leaks in Washington Gas lines around D.C., which were identified in a 2022 report from Beyond Gas DC. Advocates of electrifying D.C. are also growing increasingly frustrated with delays from the D.C. Construction Codes Coordinating Board, which has yet to move forward in implementing the city’s pledge to enact a net-zero energy standard by 2026

At CCCB’s most recent meeting on March 16, the board decided once again to delay the vote to approve Energy Conservation Code Change Proposal 4-1-23, a measure that would require all electric equipment in new commercial buildings. The board rejected the same code change in October over Pepco’s feasibility concerns. Pepco has since rescinded its concerns, but the latest delay is due to questions of legality rather than content of the code, namely, whether Robert’s Rules of Order will allow the board to vote on the code in question if it has already been rejected once this legislative year. Even so, some board members still see potential risks to implementation.

CCCB member Anthony Dale says the vote was defeated in October because Pepco had refused to support the new code until additional studies on implementation could be performed, but these studies were never conducted.

“There will be costs associated with the electrification proposal, and we need to provide the public with information on what these costs would look like,” Dale says. “But right now we don’t have any information on how this looks.”

Eric Jones, the vice president of government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association, cites similar concerns over public transparency. “One of the horrible things about this [vote]” he says, is that it “is one of the few times you’ve had an item with drastic impacts to D.C. residents. But a lot of things [the CCCB] has discussed are not things the front-facing public will see.”

Jones, who tracks CCCB issues for AOBA and the commercial and residential developers it serves, also cites issues with feasibility. “Certain provisions are unrealistic and make D.C. properties less desirable…it makes it harder to rent properties in D.C.,” he says.

Jones acknowledges that anti-gas activists see pushback coming from the big developers who often pull the legislative strings in D.C. But Jones believes the calls for further deliberation are coming from the broader community as well.

Fox and many advocates of a greener D.C. are aware of the pushback from the business class. “Anything too prescriptive is going to have a lot of backlash,” Fox says, adding that she was opposed to installing an electric stove until her experience with WGL.

But this doesn’t stop their defense of these more prescriptive policy changes. Kelly Whittier, director of communications for the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at George Washington University, says “a lot of folks look at environmentalism for the sake of climate change and the climate panic. But environmentalism also has very strong connections to public health.”

Whittier says continued delays from the CCCB could exacerbate health inequities within the District. In her view, D.C. has already decided to transition to electric and continued deliberation is extraneous. “The merit of the law has already been decided by the legislature,” says Whittier, who previously worked as communications director for former Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh

Washington Gas launched PROJECTPipes in 2014 as an overhaul of the District’s gas line infrastructure—pitching it as a project to make D.C. safely dependent on methane. As part of the project’s latest phase, WGL also submitted a proposal to charge customers for their Advanced Leak Detection program, in which the utility regularly measures gas leaks throughout the District to monitor repair needs.

For Mark Rodeffer, the political chair of the D.C. Sierra Club, the idea that WGL is effectively monitoring leaks in D.C. is “laughable.”

“The technology doesn’t work,” he says, pointing to the recent report from Beyond Gas DC. More than a dozen of the hundreds of leaks that the group identified had methane concentrations that were potentially explosive, according to the 2022 report.

Last month, D.C.’s Public Service Commission rejected WGL’s proposal to surcharge customers as a method of covering costs associated with detecting gas leaks and instead directed WGL toward alternative methods of financing the program.

Rodeffer also says that WGL is structuring its PROJECTPipes repairs based on the most cost-effective approach, rather than prioritizing the pipes that are in the most dire need of replacement. In Washington Gas’ latest filing to D.C.’s Public Service Commission, the utility acknowledges that $240 million of the project’s Phase 3 spending is “‘compelled’ not by any data on leaks, but instead on where Pepco is digging” for its electric distribution line undergrounding program—DC PLUG—which is gradually placing select electrical systems in D.C.

In their statement to City Paper, the utility says they respond to each report they receive on their emergency notification line. “Our technicians check the area to investigate for indications of natural gas and will not leave until the area has been determined safe. Any repairs needed to piping or appliances on the customer’s side of the meter are the responsibility of the customer or owner of the premises.”

Jones maintains that anti-gas environmental groups are “painting an extreme narrative to prove a point…but they’re not open dialogue, they’re not open to engaging, they’re open to their point.” When prompted, Jones says he was not optimistic that conversations would happen before the CCCB’s next vote on the new electrification code. “Nothing shifts overnight,” he says. 

Fox’s own hopes for a methane-free D.C. lie more in an individualized approach, and that’s where she is focusing her energy. In the end, Fox moved out of her condo in September 2022 to a gas-free building. “I was so sick trying to accomplish this with not much help,” she says. “It’s just too much.”