Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 20, 2023


Selah Goodson Bell, (404) 903-6803,

D.C. Council Urged to Ban Utility Shutoffs, Forgive Utility Debt

WASHINGTON— More than 40 groups urged the Council of the District of Columbia to pass legislation that protects households from utility shutoffs due to non-payment and recognize that access to utilities is a human right.

Today’s letter highlights the critical need for these protections as record-breaking summer temperatures continue to threaten D.C.’s predominantly Black, Brown and low-income neighborhoods, which face the greatest risk of utility shutoffs throughout the year.

“It’s about time that the D.C. Council fully protects Washingtonians from the deadly consequences of utility greed,” said Selah Goodson Bell, energy justice campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “For children, seniors and residents who have disabilities, the loss of heat, power or water is a matter of life and death. D.C.’s patchwork of utility shutoff restrictions allows thousands of our neighbors to fall through the cracks as Pepco and Washington Gas shovel out hundreds of millions in profit to their shareholders.”

Today’s letter calls on councilmembers to:

  1. End power, heat and water utility disconnections for non-payment;
  2. Forgive low-income customers’ utility debt;
  3. Expand demographic data in utilities’ disconnection and arrearage reports;
  4. Implement progressive financing mechanisms to fund the above measures.

With Pepco and Washington Gas rapidly ramping up residential shutoffs, the letter’s signees are pushing the D.C. Council to take urgent action. The two utility companies already disconnected households 8,800 times this year through July, exceeding last year’s total. Pepco’s current disconnection rate for its low-income customers is more than five times higher than last year’s rate.

“A ban on utility shutoffs is a crucial step toward advancing energy justice for D.C. residents,” said Advait Arun, organizer with We Power D.C. “It is unconscionable that our for-profit utilities can deny necessary energy services to our most vulnerable neighbors, endangering their health, yet pay millions to their wealthy shareholders. This legislation would end that cruel practice.”

“Access to safe, affordable, reliable and sustainable household water and energy is a basic human need and right, but too many D.C. residents have already experienced disastrous loss of these essential services,” said Lara Levison, energy committee chair for the Sierra Club District of Columbia Chapter. “As the climate crisis worsens, bringing more deadly heat waves and other extreme weather events, utility shutoffs are increasingly dangerous, especially to Black, Brown and low-income residents who already pay a higher proportion of their income for utilities. Ending utility shutoffs for vulnerable D.C. residents would barely make a dent in the bottom line for Pepco and Washington Gas, but the utilities will not do the right thing unless the D.C. Council requires them to do it.”

“Low- to moderate-income households currently face undue burdens when it comes to utility debt accumulation and arrears,” said Ness Perry, advocacy specialist with the Latino Economic Development Center. “These accruals ultimately place financial strain that impairs credit scores and purchasing power until the debt is cleared. Utility ban legislation must include provisions to forgive previous debts so that these households are able to keep lifesaving utilities on without being penalized.”

“As D.C. continues to lead in efforts to create a clean energy future it is extremely important that we double our efforts to protect the most vulnerable citizens from unnecessary, dangerous, profit-driven, utility shutoff policies,” said Chris Weiss, executive director of the D.C. Environmental Network. “A just energy transition in D.C. must include increased recognition of the rights of all to heat, power and water. Guaranteeing these rights for children, seniors and residents with disabilities should be an easy choice for decision makers and quickly codified into law.”

“Water is a basic human right,” said Mary Grant, the Public Water for All campaign director at Food & Water Watch. “It is time for D.C. to join communities across the country from Baltimore to Chicago in working to affirm this right by stopping water shutoffs over unaffordable bills. No one should lose access to these essential utility services that are necessary for life and living a life of dignity.”

“We call on the Council to stand with our neighbors on the front lines facing extreme heat, bitter cold and other harms of living in a climate damaged by fossil-fuel burning,” said Robin Lewis, director of Climate Equity, Interfaith Power & Light (DC.MD.NoVA). “It is our responsibility to help those vulnerable residents in dire need of electricity and other utilities to survive, not punish them because they need financial help. This is an environmental injustice which we call on the Council to stand up against, as representatives of the people. Industrial polluters are profiting on the backs of the most vulnerable and are accountable for the damage that they have caused to our climate. We need to stop these polluters from punishing the most impacted residents who unfortunately have the heaviest utility burdens and the least financial means.”

Today’s letter points out that the estimated cost to prevent shutoffs is a drop in the bucket for the two investor-owned utilities and their shareholders. The cost of Pepco’s more than 6,200 disconnections so far could be covered by diverting less than 1% of the utility’s expenditures on shareholder dividends this year. The letter asserts that shutoffs are not needed to maintain the utilities’ financial health, but the companies’ boundless profit-seeking inhumanely penalizes customers who already face undue financial and social burdens.

As D.C. continues to spearhead efforts to address the climate catastrophe with forward-looking policies and campaigns to equitably transition off fossil fuels and boost distributed renewable energy, it must also protect Washingtonians from the growing and avoidable shutoffs crisis, the letter said.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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