Special Report: No Improvement in Pipeline Explosion Deaths

Gas pipeline explosions and fires in the United States kill 13 people a year, injure 57 others and cost tens of millions of dollars annually, according to public data collected and reviewed by the Pritzker Hageman explosion law firm.

Pritzker Hageman is a national explosion law firm that represents burn victims and families in pipeline explosion lawsuits. The firm has called for increased transparency by the industry and quicker reporting of gas line leaks to help people protect themselves.

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In the past 20 years — as of July 1, 2021 —  704 gas pipeline incidents deemed “serious’’ by the federal government have killed 259 Americans and injured 1,154, the documents show. Pritzker Hageman’s team of pipeline accident lawyers found that the records indicate a devastating lack of safety progress by utility companies.

Over the past 10 years alone, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) calculated more than $1 billion in public costs from the failures. That sum includes hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation paid to survivors by an industry draped in pipeline explosion lawsuits.

As PHMSA states on its website: “Generally, the pipeline operator reimburses the Public for all Public Costs.’’ It’s the job of explosion injury lawyers to lock down full recoveries for burn victims.

“The structural and operational integrity of our pipeline system is a joke,’’ said Eric Hageman, lead pipeline accident lawyer at Pritzker Hageman. “The network is laced with doubt because failures happen so often and in so many places.’’

As was the case in Texas recently at an Atmos Energy facility northeast of Dallas, the lives of pipeline workers often are at stake. Two workers died and three others were injured there on June 28, 2021, when an explosion happened at their job site. They were involved in a pipeline maintenance project and the cause of the blast was not immediately known.

Private Pipelines, Public Harm

But according to documents reviewed by Pritzker Hageman, public fatalities and injuries far outnumber deaths and injuries among pipeline workers. A government spreadsheet of “Significant Incident Consequences’’ compiled by PHMSA shows the imbalance of public harm in each of the past 15 years. In two of those years — 2013 and 2018 — 100 percent of the victims who died in pipeline explosions and fires were members of the general public. In the remaining years, pipeline explosions and fires affected the lives of everyday people more so than utility workers.

Hageman said the federal data reviewed by his team reveals little to no improvement in gas pipeline safety over the past 15 years. Across the 20-year spectrum, the number of “serious’’ incidents has improved only mildly from the 20-year average of 35 serious incidents per year. The most recent three-year average was 30 serious incidents per year, for the period that ended Dec. 31, 2020. The average number of deaths per year over the past three years was 11 compared with an average of 13 deaths per year over the previous 20 years, the law firm found.

“After all these years, human suffering continues to be a mainstay in the pipeline business,’’ Hageman said. “Every serious incident is a horror story.’’

Flatline danger

Natural gas pipeline failures don’t always make national headlines because some explosions happen in unpopulated areas and in other locations where they don’t cause injury. One such blast happened at 8:55 p.m. on June 26, 2021, near the town of West Bloomfield, New York.

A town resident told Spectrum News 1 that she heard a roar and braced herself as her house shook. She thought a jetliner crashed nearby until locals searched and found debris from a ground explosion one mile away. The Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company confirmed that the massive disturbance was triggered by a pipeline rupture in an isolated area east of Pond Road. The incident wasn’t categorized as “serious’’ because no one was burned or hurt. But residents are demanding action to control the risk of another explosion somewhere on the same pipeline.

Pritzker Hageman collected and reviewed PHMSA’s data for cumulative pipeline incidents of all kinds and found zero improvements in the hazardous materials pipeline industry over the past 20 years. Purely based on incident counts, the three-year average from 2018 through 2020 was 623 per year. That compares to the 20-year average of 625 pipeline incidents per year.

A previous 2021 investigation by Pritzker Hageman offers a partial explanation for the safety collapse. In the case of pressurized natural gas pipelines, the industry has continued to operate with thousands of miles of aging iron vessels prone to corrosion, cracks, and seam failures. As of March 2021, gas companies were operating with a combined 21,273 miles of main gas distribution lines made of cast iron or wrought iron. In places like Chicago, replacement projects have dragged out for years beyond completion deadlines. Those deadlines originally were set for safety reasons. The aging pipelines pose a high risk for catastrophic explosions and fires, the law firm reported. The firm listed the top 10 states with the most mileage of underground iron gas pipes as New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Connecticut, Maryland, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Alabama.

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