About Air and Water

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Gas leak discrepancies spark concern - Atmos has thousands more identified gas leaks than it repairs

Part IV

A top official from Atmos Energy is on the record saying that all natural gas leaks are serious and possibly deadly; but at the same time, Atmos Energy says the vast majority of their leaks can go months or longer without being repaired.

That policy has Cindy Graham of Richardson concerned. She described the experience of smelling leaking natural gas just outside of her home this summer.

"It was like walking into a wall of natural gas," she said. "It made me ill."

Graham said her immediate response was to call Atmos. When Atmos came out and found the leak next door, she said, they told her it would not be repaired because it was not a threat.

"He said he found the leak but it's just going up into the air, but that it was not going to harm anyone," she said.

Coral Watkins, of Wylie, said she and her neighbors were also told for years not to worry about gas they smelled in their older neighborhood.

"We had called and called and called about gas leaks, gas smells and bubbling everywhere and [Atmos said] there's nothing wrong," she said.

But one of those leaks turned deadly when gas found its way under the Wylie home of Benny and Martha Cryer, who were both killed when the gas exploded last October.

In the days following that explosion, Atmos discovered 24 active leaks within a few blocks in the same neighborhood. The leaks may have been something they knew already existed. Any one of which, according to one top Atmos official, who while being deposed recently for a lawsuit, said all leaks are dangerous.

"I believe anytime you have an escape of natural gas you have the potential of a serious situation that could cause serious damage or even death," said Scott Powell, Atmos Vice President.

What's the danger to North Texans? Atmos reported having more than 16,000 leaks in its North and Mid-Texas system in 2006. They said on any given day, they have roughly 6,700 active leaks.

According to Atmos, only five percent or their leaks, the really bad ones, are repaired immediately. Those are called grade one leaks. Grade two leaks, about 33 percent, are medium priority and get monitored monthly until they're repaired. Grade three and four leaks, about 61 percent, are low priority and may not get repaired for months.

Graham's fear is that right next door is one of those grade three or four leaks, which according to Atmos, is both potentially dangerous, yet not a threat to public safety.

"I don't know what these people are thinking," she said. "I don't know how they can come to your door and look you straight in the face and tell you it's not an issue when obviously it's an issue."

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