About Air and Water

Sunday, November 4, 2007

State's decision on gas blast questioned


The safety of many North Texans was called into question last week during a News 8 investigation into a deadly natural gas explosion in Wylie last year.

As a result, the state agency that oversees pipeline safety in Texas is under increasing scrutiny for allowing 100,000 potentially deadly pipe fittings to remain in the ground.

One year after a natural gas explosion killed Benny and Martha Cryer of Wylie, the Texas Railroad Commission is taking some action to ensure that some of the potentially deadly couplings are removed.

Now there is new evidence that the Texas Railroad Commissioners may have suddenly backed off a proposal last spring to force Atmos to remove the dangerous couplings.

In Ramsey, Minnesota, three people were killed and one injured on December 28, 2004, which was when a natural gas pipe pulled out of its coupling, leaked gas and sparked an explosion. It was the same style of coupling that federal regulators and industry experts had warned for two decades posed a deadly potential for pullout.

The Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety conducted an exhaustive and detailed investigation including a forensic examination of the failed coupling and determined the pipe "pull-out occurred" because of "thermal contraction of the soil."

The response was swift. The fittings were deemed dangerous and state pipeline officials ordered nearly 30,000 of them immediately pulled from the ground, which cost the gas company nearly $40 million.

Fast forward to October 16, 2006 in Wylie. Benny and Martha Cryer were killed when an Atmos pipe pulled out of its compression coupling, leaked gas and caused an explosion.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the pipeline industry, conducted the investigation.

Its preliminary finding stated that a line that separated from a compression coupling "possibly due to shifting of soil" and "natural ground movement."

Just as was the case in Minnesota, a recommendation was drafted, which was dated April 25, 2007, from Safety Director Mary McDaniel directing gas companies in Texas to establish a "replacement program to phase out" the questionable couplings.

However, that memo was never sent.

Another memo, also dated April 25 from Mary McDaniel, was greatly modified. The demand for a "coupling phase out" was gone and replaced with a request for information regarding the "installation, maintenance and leak history" of the compression couplings.

McDaniel denied a "phase out" was ever considered.

So, the potentially deadly couplings, an estimated 100,000 of them, remain in the soil while the Railroad Commission conducts a survey.

At a recent meeting in Austin, Commissioner Elizabeth A. Jones congratulated McDaniel for her fine work.

"You all are doing such a great job in getting so deep into this study," she said. "I really appreciate it."

Then amid mounting questions from News 8, Commissioners ordered gas companies to "repair or replace" the dangerous couplings if they are leaking or discovered during routine excavations.

Instead of ordering the couplings removed as in Minnesota, Railroad Commissioners have opted to study them and revisit the issue in January.

"We are taking every effort we can to make sure that we can provide to people in this state the safest natural gas transporting system in the country," said Commission Chairman Michael L. Williams when asked if he thought it would be possible someone could die before the compression coupling leaks are discovered.

"This order would not have saved Benny and Martha Cryer's lives," said Bruce Scrafford, an Austin attorney who represents the Cryer family in a lawsuit against Atmos Energy.

He called the Railroad Commission directive meaningless, mainly because federal safety regulations already say "each segment of pipeline that becomes unsafe must be replaced or removed from service."

Scrafford said Railroad Commissioners are, in effect, doing nothing.

"The Railroad Commission has not done anything to follow up, to make sure that they take those couplings out of the ground in applications where they are not appropriate and where they are unsafe and where more people are going to die if they don't do something to fix this problem," he said.

So, why isn't Atmos aggressively removing the 100,000 non-restraint couplings still in their system? That question was recently posed to an Atmos engineer in a videotaped deposition.

"I don't know," said the engineer when asked if he thought there was any other reason besides cost that Atmos would not replace the fittings.

Atmos Energy's official position is another utility disrupted their gas pipes causing the Wylie explosion. Atmos officials also said that they are complying with the Railroad Commission's directive and insist their pipeline system is safe.

Atmos officials also once assured Wylie residents who reported smelling gas hat everything was fine.

"In some cases, there was no leak found," said Rand Lavon, an Atmos spokesperson. "In other cases, it might have been something inside the home like a hot water heater."

But everything in that Wylie neighborhood was not fine. A compression coupling with s deadly reputation failed, killing Benny and Martha Cryer. It was a style of coupling too dangerous for Minnesota, but not the state of Texas.

In response to News 8 reports, Atmos officials have released a statement. They said safety and reliability are their highest priorities and that they welcome any discussion about safety and maintaining their natural gas system.

More importantly, they ask anyone who may smell gas to contact Atmos.

And for those who live in an older home and have a meter that looks unattended to, contact Atmos and tell them you want your system checked for bad couplings.
Read more on WFAA

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