Saturday, October 20, 2007

Explosions fuel gas pipeline fittings debate

By BRETT SHIPP - WFAA-TV News 8 Investigation - Oct. 18, 2007

A deadly natural gas explosion in Wylie last year is fueling a new debate about the safety of many North Texans.

At least 100,000 of the questionable couplings that failed in the Wylie case are still in the ground in North Texas.

News 8 discovered these are the same fittings that have been popping loose under the elastic North Texas soil, leaking natural gas into houses and causing deadly explosions for decades.

When leaking gas was blamed for the October 2006 explosion that killed Benny and Martha Cryer, neighbors like Coral Watkins said they were not surprised. Watkins said many of her neighbors had complained to the gas company for years.
"You used to could just walk out and it would hit you in the face," she said. "[I] complained to Atmos, and they would come out and say they couldn't smell anything."

As it turns out, Watkins and her neighbors were right. Days after the gas leak and explosion that killed the Cryers, Atmos crews made a shocking discovery. Gas lines were leaking all over the neighborhood.

Twenty-four were discovered, even though Atmos officials said they could find no leaks during tests run in the neighborhood one year before.

Atmos officials have declined to discuss on camera with News 8 the nature of the leaks citing ongoing litigation, but insist that the original pipeline equipment was installed properly.

The leak that killed Benny and Martha Cryer was traced to a gas line that had separated from its fitting. Installed in the '70s, what's known as a non-restraint, compression coupling had pulled loose of the pipe. Unlike most fittings that lock tight, the non-restraint, compression coupling's only mechanism to grip the pipe is a rubber seal.

According to Atmos construction worker Allan Burrow, who was recently deposed in a lawsuit against Atmos, the coupling has a history of slipping out.

"The washer on the inside had a tendency to dry up over a period of years and just start, just causing a leak," he said.

Atmos officials said they replace the couplings after they leak and will replace them when they discover one still in the ground.

But federal pipeline safety regulations already require action and states, "each segment of pipeline that becomes unsafe must be replaced or removed from service."

By not removing all of the old couplings out of the ground, Atmos is leaving tens of thousands of potentially deadly couplings still in the very elastic North Texas soil.

In 1980, the National Transportation Safety Board investigating a fatal house explosion in Keller determined, "soil stress loosened one end of the compression coupling."
In that same report the NTSB declared, "compression couplings were not designed to prevent pullout."

Pipeline engineer Don Deaver of Houston said compression couplings are known throughout the industry as dangerous and the manufacturers even warn of a potential pullout. "And this has been known for a long time," he said. "These warnings have been here for many, many years."

On December 8, 2006, Texas Railroad Commission investigators released their preliminary findings on the Cryers' house explosion. Among their findings was a "line that separated from a compression coupling... possibly due to shifting of soil" and "natural ground movement".

According to an inter-office email just days before the final report was released, Railroad Commission Safety Director Mary McDaniel and her investigator discussed the couplings' "susceptibility to pull out with stress."

But five days later, when the Wylie explosion final report became public, News 8 noticed a glaring omission. There was no mention of the flawed couplings and no criticism of Atmos and the 24 leaks in one neighborhood.

Instead, the report alluded to "possible damage" to the gas line during "third party" activity. In other words, another utility, not Atmos, might be to blame for the pullout.

In a notification letter to Atmos, the safety director "thanked Atmos for their assistance" with what she termed "a favorable report" and praised Atmos' "efforts to maintain their pipeline".

Deaver said he's shocked by the language in the final report.

"I don't understand the reason for even making that statement," he said. "It's almost suggesting that there's a lack of independence between the Texas Railroad Commission and the industry its regulating when it gets to be so chummy and makes those statements considering two people were dead."
News 8 also obtained an internal memo dated December 8, 2006 from Regional Safety Director Jody Kerl to her boss Mary McDaniel regarding the Wylie explosion.

Based on her concerns, Kerl recommends "an expedited program to phase out" the compression couplings attached to the gas meters. But just weeks ago, McDaniel told News 8 she rejected Kerl's recommendation.

Her reasoning was that McDaniel said there is nothing to back it up.

"There was one incident in Wylie that happened at that time," said McDaniel. "We didn't have any information that would suggest we had a problem with compression type couplings."

Meanwhile, on January 25t, 2007, one month after Kerl's recommendation to remove the couplings, a homeowner was injured when natural gas leaked into her house near Houston and exploded.

The preliminary cause according to state investigators was that settling soil had caused a compression coupling to fail.

Five months later, on May 29, two people were killed and three injured when natural gas leaked into a home in Cleburne. The preliminary cause, a compression coupling that failed.
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