Pockets of the U.S. population continue to face horrendous explosion risk from outdated and dangerous natural gas pipeline systems, according to federal data reviewed by Pritzker Hageman law firm.
Based on agency data available in March 2021, gas companies were operating with a combined 21,273 miles of main gas distribution lines made of leak-prone cast iron or wrought iron. The aging pipelines, some that date to the late 1800s, are susceptible to corrosion, cracks and seam failures as documented for over 30 years now by federal safety agencies and private engineering firms. Explosion lawyers at Pritzker Hageman have observed how iron pipes have erupted time and again into deadly fireballs and searing heat. Lives have been ruined and whole neighborhoods have been destroyed in some of these gas pipeline explosions.
“Gas companies are playing roulette with the lives of the public’’ said Fred Pritzker, founder and president of Pritzker Hageman, a national personal injury law firm. “Too many operators are dragging their feet on pipeline replacement programs.’’
Explosion lawyer Eric Hageman, who together with Pritzker has recovered tens of millions of dollars for victims in explosion lawsuits, said it’s only a matter of time before the next explosion and fire destroys the lives of unsuspecting families.
“These explosions create instant zones of death,’’ Hageman said. “Natural gas companies are morally complicit in every failure. Iron pipelines are categorically unsafe.’’
Pritzker-Hageman investigates pipeline explosions to hold gas companies accountable. The law firm reviewed data compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to see which states have the most mileage of underground iron gas pipes. Four States (New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania) account for half of all the cast iron pipe in the U.S., according to data archived by PHMSA. New Jersey leads in total length of the installations (3,583 miles) while Washington, D.C., has the highest percentage of main gas distribution lines made of iron. The leak-prone pipes make up 33 percent of the District’s natural gas supply infrastructure.
The review by Pritzker Hageman showed the top ten states with the most miles of wrought iron or cast iron main distribution gas pipelines: New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Connecticut, Maryland, Illinois, Rhode Island and Alabama.
Utilities serving all of those states are required under federal law to install safe, plastic pipelines. But according to the data, some companies have acted dramatically slower than others to make upgrades. According to Pritzker Hageman’s review of federal records, companies in the natural gas industry combined to lower the amount of iron main distribution lines from 39,645 miles in 2005 to 21,273 miles in 2019. But the 46 percent improvement by the industry wasn’t equally distributed. For instance, Baltimore Gas & Electric started with 1,381 miles of iron pipe in 2005. Over the next 15 years, the utility barely upgraded more than 300 miles of the perilous old pipeline.
Pipeline replacement investigation
Late last year in Chicago, newspaper reporters finished their investigation of a lax replacement program that has placed the city in a dangerous predicament. According to the inquiry, Peoples Gas launched a System Modernization Program in 2011 designed to replace 2,000 miles of aging iron pipes below the city’s streets. The utility said it would take 20 years to finish and cost $2.6 billion. But the Chicago Tribune revealed in December that the project was less than a third finished and that Peoples Gas now says it won’t be complete until 2040 at a cost of $7.7 billion.
The Chicago example illustrates how the U.S. is acquiescing to cries from gas companies that speedy replacement of iron pipelines is too expensive. The industry has argued that customers can’t afford the necessary rate hikes. And as much as Congress recognizes the danger of iron pipelines — passing the Pipes Act of 2020 to put more resources toward leak detection and other safety measures — lawmakers side with the industry’s fiscal rationale. Even the Department of Energy says safe operation of utility companies should be carried out while operating at the lowest possible cost.
As a result, pipeline replacement timelines keep getting dragged out.
Explosion deaths mounting
Pritzker said gas companies and regulators are crudely undermining public safety. “Where does the sanctity of human life factor into their cost-benefit analyses?’’ the attorney said.
Last year alone, there were at least 10 pipeline incidents considered “serious” and one tragically resulted in the death of four workers in Texas. The wide-scale crisis was recognized in 1990 by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) after a natural gas pipeline exploded in Allentown, Pennsylvania, killing 44-year-old Diane Lazer and critically injuring her roommate. Six others also were victimized by the blast and its ensuing fire.
The Allentown explosion and fire investigation pointed to a rotting pipeline and the NTSB put the country on notice by instructing gas companies to replace their cast iron pipes “in a planned, timely manner.’’
But over the next 28 years, 264 people were killed in natural gas leaks, fires and explosions. The failures injured more than 1,600 individuals. USA Today wrote about the silent danger in a special report two years ago headlined Pipeline Peril. The newspaper said pipeline replacement programs receive “only spotty oversight from a fractured system of state and federal safety regulations.’’ The report said government watchdogs have largely left it to the utilities themselves to determine the biggest safety vulnerabilities in their networks.
Holding wrongdoers accountable
America’s biggest wakeup call to rotting natural gas pipelines came Sept. 9, 2010, in San Bruno, Calif. Initial 911 calls described the catastrophe as a gas station explosion or airplane crash. Instead, it was a ruptured natural gas pipeline owned by Pacific Gas & Electric. The explosion killed eight people and injured 50 more. The firebomb left a crater in the earth that stretched 100 feet long. Flames flew 300 feet into the air and the neighborhood was leveled.
Pritzker Hageman probed records in the Federal Register to conduct a post-mortem investigation of the explosion. The documents said 91 minutes passed before Pacific Gas & Electric could shut off the flow of gas to the rupture site. Moreover, the company was clueless about the section of pipe that failed. In PG&E’s records, it was identified as “seamless.’’ But investigators discovered the pipeline was instead made with a longitudinal seam susceptible to seam failure. Contributing to the failure of the defective pipe was the company’s practice of operating the San Bruno pipeline with regular changes in gas pressure.
As explosion lawsuits were filed and findings came to light, the Obama administration issued a federal call to action. An independent review panel concluded that even with defective welds and substandard pipeline materials, the disaster could have been avoided by competent management and oversight of PG&E’s gas transmission system. The company missed easy opportunities to replace the pipe in years that led up to the explosion, the review panel found.
In yet another review by the California Public Utilities Commission, a staff audit found PG&E had been skirting the requirements of the state’s integrity management regulations through the use of an exception process that delayed critical repairs. California would later fine PG&E a record $1.6 billion for violating state and federal pipeline safety standards.
But that wasn’t all. A federal jury in 2016 found PG&E guilty of knowingly violating five sections of federal safety regulations and for obstructing the NTSB’s investigation into the San Bruno pipeline explosion.
Lawsuit settlements top $590 million
Overall, the California utility paid out about $500 million to resolve injury and wrongful death lawsuits related to the blast that killed eight and destroyed San Bruno’s Crestmoor neighborhood. Some survivors suffered burns covering 90 percent of their body, requiring surgeries that continue to this day.
In addition, lawyers who represented shareholders of PG&E received a $90 million settlement for their clients in San Mateo County Court. The lawsuit cited company mismanagement for causing the gas line explosion and its investment aftermath.
The San Jose Mercury News reported that the deal not only provided cash to shareholders but required the company to change the culture of its gas operations to avoid another lethal explosion. Among other things, the lawsuit settlement required the utility to hire a chief safety officer and a chief ethics and compliance officer to work as internal watchdogs.
“The explosion was caused by a combination of PG&E’s shoddy maintenance, flawed record-keeping and the PUC’s lazy oversight, according to an official investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board,’’ the newspaper reported.
Explosion Lawyer Review
A pipeline explosion review by the Pritzker Hageman law firm uncovered more incidents involving unsafe, outdated iron pipes. The data was mined from federal case files archived by PHMSA.
- December 19, 2019 – Philadelphia Gas Works crews responded to three properties on fire in the City of Philadelphia. Two people died in the inferno. A six-inch cast iron gas main had cracked around its circumference. When an underground cavity caused ground movement, the weakened pipe ruptured. A total of 60 people were evacuated. Investigators discovered that the natural gas main was in use for 90 years — originally installed in 1928.
- June 16, 2018 – Members of a Baltimore Gas and Electric paving crew (hired under contract) were burned and hospitalized while using a heat torch in the area of a natural gas pipeline leak. Investigators subsequently traced the leak to a cast iron joint. The natural gas pipeline was 115 years old, installed in 1903.
- January 20, 2018 – Fire from a natural gas pipeline leak erupted in a two story residential building in Brooklyn, New York. Four people were injured. Investigators traced the leak to a cast iron pipe that broke in a frost heave. The natural gas main was about 90 years old, first buried in approximately 1927.
- July 31, 2016 — One person died and a second person was injured at a residence in Shreveport, Louisiana. Natural gas leaked from a 4-inch-round cast iron main that was installed in 1911.
- March 5, 2015 – A Detroit resident died and a second person was injured when natural gas leaked from a cast iron main pipeline that was installed in 1923. Deep frost in the ground caused the main to break, investigators said.
- January 27, 2015 – A home exploded in Cordova, Alabama, while gas utility workers responded to a natural gas leak. One person died and three were injured in the blast. Investigators discovered that gas leaked from a broken cast iron main people. The natural gas distribution pipeline was installed in 1952.
- January 9, 2012 – One person died and another person was injured in Austin, Texas, when natural gas leaked into a home and exploded. Investigators determined that the leak originated at a break in a four-inch cast iron gas main installed in 1950.
- February 9, 2011 – Five people died in a tragic natural gas pipeline explosion in Allentown, PA. An investigation found a crack in a 12-inch-round cast iron main that was installed in 1928 and was operating at very low pressure. Beside causing five deaths, the blast injured three people and destroyed eight homes.