Citing apartment complex blast, Sen. Smith to seek hold on Moore nominee for Public Service Commission
A prominent Democratic state senator plans to place a hold on one of Gov. Wes Moore’s nominees to serve on the Maryland Public Service Commission, as he seeks answers about the nominee’s role in the oversight and investigation of a Silver Spring apartment complex where a gas explosion in 2016 killed seven residents and injured dozens more.
Sen. Will Smith (D-Montgomery) told Maryland Matters on Tuesday he has reservations about the Democratic governor’s nomination of Juan Alvarado to serve on the powerful commission that regulates utilities and energy companies in the state. Alvarado, an official at the American Gas Association, spent more than a dozen years as a staffer at the PSC, and oversaw the agency’s Telecommunications, Gas, and Water Division for seven of them, before and after the disaster.
Alvarado worked at the PSC when a gas explosion ripped through the Flower Branch apartment complex in the Long Branch neighborhood of Silver Spring, a searing experience for the hundreds of mostly immigrant families that lived there. Seven people died, including two children, and 68 people were injured. Dozens of families were displaced.
Smith said that when Alvarado’s nomination comes before the Senate Executive Nominations Committee, he will seek to hold it. He has also expressed his concerns to members of the Moore administration. Confirmation hearings for Alvarado and for Fred Hoover, the former head of the Maryland Energy Administration who Moore nominated to serve as PSC chair, have not been scheduled.
Smith’s public plans to hold Alvarado’s nomination coincided with some environmental groups wondering why Moore would pick a veteran of the natural gas industry to serve on the PSC at a time when many state leaders are looking to transition Maryland away from the use of fossil fuels in the building and transportation sectors.
At immediate issue is Alvarado’s involvement in the PSC’s handling of the fatal explosion at the Flower Branch apartments. The blast was blamed on a faulty mercury gas regulator, which is commonly found in houses and apartment buildings built before 1960. Washington Gas, the local utility, was in the process of upgrading that equipment throughout its service area, but federal investigators concluded that the company fell behind on its commitments for completing that transition — and some elected officials and local civic leaders believe the PSC did not do enough to pressure Washington Gas to expedite the work.
Smith said he wants to probe Alvarado’s role in the oversight of the equipment conversion and in the investigations that followed the Flower Branch emergency.
“Considering the recent professional history coming after [he worked at] the PSC, and the events that shocked my district with the apartments, I have serious concerns about his nomination and I don’t know whether they can be answered,” Smith said in an interview.
Alvarado did not respond to phone and email messages left Tuesday at the American Gas Association in Washington, D.C., where he serves as the senior director of energy analysis.
Several state and federal agencies were involved in the investigation following the Flower Branch explosion. The PSC eventually fined Washington Gas $750,000 in civil penalties, though maximum fines could have reached into the millions of dollars. Local officials and community leaders in the Long Branch neighborhood believe that the PSC should have done a better job of tracking Washington Gas’ promised repairs and upgrades to the monitors and heating systems at the apartment complex.
Alvarado’s career has largely been as an economist, so it is unclear how much oversight of the apartment complex he was responsible for when he was at the PSC, either before the explosion or in its aftermath. Still, some critics hope to use Alvarado’s confirmation hearing to pepper him with questions about the PSC’s response.
Meanwhile, some environmentalists are disappointed that Moore would nominate someone who works in the natural gas industry. And they said they are chagrined that they were not asked to weigh in on either PSC nomination.
“I was not consulted and I am not aware of anyone that was,” said Josh Tulkin, state director of the Maryland Sierra Club.
One environmental policy leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize relations with Moore administration officials, wondered who recommended Alvarado to the administration.
“It’s largely a question of, do you really want a gas guy, especially when you’re trying to move away from gas infrastructure?” the environmental leader said. “Who put the bug in their ear that this was the best path?”
Sen. Pamela Beidle (D-Anne Arundel), chair of the Executive Nominations Committee, said Tuesday she was not sure when the PSC nominees would be scheduled for their confirmation hearings, though it would not be next Monday, Feb. 27. Beidle predicted the hearing on Alvarado would be “interesting” and said she expected many of her colleagues to sharply question the nominee. Beidle said she too was surprised that Moore chose to appoint someone with a natural gas background to the PSC.
“I thought that was something we were trying to get away from,” she said.
A spokesperson for Moore, Carter Elliott IV, defended Alvarado’s nomination.
“Governor Moore is confident that Juan Alvarado is an incredibly qualified economist with a lengthy list of experiences that positions him perfectly for a role on the Maryland Public Service Commission,” Elliott said. “Mr. Alvarado’s resume speaks for itself, and he looks forward to meeting with members of the Executive Nominations Committee to discuss his qualifications.”