Texas lawmaker Rafael Anchia this week introduced pipeline safety reform legislation aimed at preventing deadly natural gas explosions liked the one that killed 12-year-old Linda Rogers in February 2018. The sweeping reform package includes 11 bills designed to improve the public notification process, stiffen fines for violators, create a searchable database of enforcement actions and move up the deadline for the removal of steel and cast iron pipelines that are prone to leaking.
“This proposed legislation, which will be resisted at every turn by pipeline companies, public utilities and the armies of lobbyists on their payrolls, is overdue and necessary,” said Fred Pritzker, lead attorney of Pritzker Hageman’s Explosion Team. “We see this all the time. Aging infrastructure, lax enforcement, and regulatory agencies that are unwilling or unable to police the companies they are supposed to oversee. The result is as predictable as it is preventable: gas explosions that kill and maim innocent people.”
In the United States, there are 2.6 million miles of natural gas and liquid petroleum pipelines, according to the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Only a small number of them could be considered new or newer. Some 60 percent were built before 1970, others are close to 100 years old.
“Technology, materials science, methods of detection and safety systems have improved since this vital but dangerous infrastructure was created. Unfortunately, companies have not been required to utilize it and, as in this case, only react after yet another tragedy occurs. The fact is that most pipelines and service lines were installed decades ago and degrade and corrode over time. They are literally ticking time bombs,” Pritzker said.
Ticking Time Bombs
Time Bomb was, in fact, the name of the Dallas Morning News 2018 investigative series that examined how Atmos Energy largely avoided enforcement action after its aging gas pipeline system was linked to a string of deadly explosions including the one that claimed Linda’s life. Anchia, whose district includes the North Dallas neighborhood where Linda’s family lived, said her death and paper’s reporting inspired his proposed legislation.
When Dallas fire crews responded to a call about a house explosion in the 3500 block of Espanola Drive on February 23, 2018, it was their third trip to that block in three days for a gas-related fire or house explosion. There had been nine such incidents since 2010.
In the weeks before the explosion, people in the neighborhood said they smelled gas. Linda’s family called Atmos Energy twice. The company repaired a meter on the exterior of the home in response to the first call. The second time, the family was told there was nothing to worry about, a family member told NBCDFW.com.
Dallas Morning News investigative reporters found that gas leaks from Atmos Energy pipelines have been linked to more than two dozen house explosions, nine deaths and 22 injuries since 2006. During that same period, Mid-Tex, one of the company’s largest divisions which includes the Dallas-Fort Worth area, received more than 2,000 safety violations paid less than $250,000 in fines.
“The science of error proofing – preventing defects before they occur – is a known and successful quality control used to good effect in product and systems design. The mentality of zero defects rather than an acceptable number of errors is at its core. In every case in which we’re involved, we find that pipeline and utility companies are accountable for human carnage because they avoided rather than embraced the concept of error proofing and zero defects. Dig up and replace degraded service lines and pipelines, embrace necessary regulation, and protect your customers,” said Pritzker.
“Think of airline safety. Public conveyances that transport hundreds of millions of people each year do so with amazingly few fatalities. Contrast that with public utilities that seem to bury safety along with their pipelines.”