About Air and Water

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Residents question gas leak 'fixes'


Part V in a continuing series
WYLIE — Atmos Energy remains busy responding to concerns about the safety of its natural gas delivery system.

Customers have been flooding the Atmos call center following a News 8 investigation into potentially dangerous pipeline couplings still being used in North Texas. Now new questions are being raised about the company's safety commitment throughout its system.

Jay Marcom walks through a Wylie neighborhood with a natural gas detector—and an acute curiosity. He's seen the News 8 Investigates reports on defective couplings and wants to know how bad the leaks really are.

It didn't take him long to find one on Wednesday, apparently coming from a rusty gas meter.

A quick squirt of liquid soap on the source of the gas revealed the leak. "You can see the bubbles right here," Marcom said. "It tells me that piece of riser is leaking, right there where it hits that valve."

Just moments after alerting authorities, firefighters arrived with their own detection gear, confirming Marcom's discovery.

It's not really a surprise, considering all of the yellow Atmos "activity flags" littering the neighborhood that's just half a block away from where Benny and Martha Cryer died in a natural gas explosion one year ago.

Following that fatal blast, Atmos discovered 24 active leaks within just a few blocks.

Atmos repair crews responded to Marcom's leak report on Wednesday afternoon, but Wylie fire investigators were back on Thursday after Marcom discovered that the leaking pipe had simply been painted over.

Repairs were finally made after a second visit by Atmos workers.

Neighbor Coral Watkins said the gas company continues to repair leaks, while insisting that the area is safe. "Smelled gas the other day, called them out, they told me there was nothing out here," she said. "Then the other day, we caught them out here; they were fixing a neighbor's leak right behind my house."

Cindy Graham of Richardson feels the same way. She says she reported a neighborhood gas leak to Atmos last June. "They said they would do something. Nothing ever happened," Graham said.

Atmos took action only after News 8 reported Graham's story last week. The company told her the leak should have immediately been placed on a repair list.

Atmos says it has responded in person to more than 1,500 concerned customers following our reports. The company maintains that its gas delivery system is safe and reliable for all customers.

At the same time, however, Atmos boasts to potential investors that it has the "lowest utility operation and maintenance expenses per customer among its peers." Atmos spends $112 per customer; competitors spend $218 per customer.

A desire to keep maintenance costs low might explain why Atmos lets an estimated 100,000 potentially deadly pipeline couplings to remain in the constantly shifting North Texas soil. Replacing them could cost tens of millions of dollars.

Two times in the past week, News 8 has responded to natural gas leaks faster than Atmos repair crews.

State Rep. Jody Laubenberg (R-Murphy), whose district includes the Wylie neighborhood where the Cryers died, believes it's time for Atmos to put safety first. "We've already had, what? Eight, nine deaths, already? We know ground is going to shift, we know things are going to happen, let's not wait for more deaths," she said.
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