Atmos agrees to massive gas coupling replacement

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on June 30, 2010 at 10:00 PM

Updated Wednesday, Aug 11 at 4:45 PM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

How many more must die?

It was a question asked by the survivor of a natural gas house explosion last year. Now, all the victims, the survivors, and the families of the deceased may finally have their answer.

News 8 has confirmed that hundreds of thousands of potentially deadly natural gas couplings in North Texas are coming out of the ground.

The compression coupling fittings and the aging steel pipes attached to them have been leaking and killing North Texans since 1980. 

News 8 first started raising questions following a fatal house explosion in Wylie in 2006. Two people died.

Three months later in Missouri City, Texas,  one person was injured in another house explosion.

Four months later, two more died and three were injured in an explosion in Cleburne. Texas.

In 2009, an explosion in Irving left a homeowner seriously burned.

A few months later, Kristi Samons of Mesquite survived when her home exploded.

Then — in January of this year — Joe Mantheiy was killed and his wife was seriously injured when their Irving house exploded.

In each case, natural gas had seeped into their homes from a leaking gas fitting known as a compression coupling.

The coupling was installed by Lone Star Gas back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s; records show pipeline technicians knew it was  prone to leak.

Yet the executive director of the Texas Railroad Commission — the state regulator of the oil and gas industry —   has long maintained that the estimated one million underground couplings are safe.

"In our viewpoint, we would disagree that there is an inherent flaw in the coupling," said Railroad Commission Executive Director John Tintera.

Earlier this year, we attempted to ask Railroad Commission Chairman Victor Carrillo about his level of concern. Carrillo dismissed them as unsubstantiated allegations, although his did say he was concerned.

Yet behind the scenes, there is emerging evidence that state regulators have, in fact, been greatly concerned.

The Texas Railroad Commission has been quietly working with Atmos Energy, the current owner of the questionable couplings, on a voluntary plan to remove all of the aging steel service lines and their failing fittings from the City of Mesquite.

At a Railroad Commission meeting in Austin last week, a visibly frustrated Commissioner Michael Williams implored staff to cut through the red tape and do more.

"Can I take the fact that I have an explosion in two cities?" asked Williams of one Commission staff member.

But News 8 has learned that the wheels are already turning on a plan to remove the questionable couplings. Atmos crews are fanning out across North Texas replacing as many old or still-failing couplings as they can.

According to a Railroad Commission source, 52 Atmos work crews have begun a compression coupling and steel service line replacement program in 39 cities across North and Central Texas.

Atmos says it is cooperating with the Commission, and the company is "committed to continuing to work with the Commission and city regulators on expanding the number of steel pipe replacement crews".

Eleven-hundred steel pipes and fittings have already been replaced in Mesquite, where explosion survivor Kristi Samons has been the most vocal advocate.

"That's wonderful news,"  she said. "I hesitate to be too excited until I see it come into fruition, because at this point, it's just words — and actions speak louder than words."

State Rep. Robert Miklos (D-Mesquite) has been the lone voice among state lawmakers to campaign for the removal of the compression couplings.

"Finally, the Railroad Commission and Atmos seem to be doing the right thing, and that is replacing the couplings and making every home —   these pre-1980s subdivisions — finally they are making them safe, " Miklos said.

The massive infrastructure replacement will involve an estimated half-million steel lines and one million compression couplings. The program could ultimately end up costing Atmos hundreds of millions of dollars.

Editor's note: This is the latest development in a story WFAA has covered over three years. It began with our investigation into a house explosion, which has now resulted in over 500,000 steel lines and compression couplings being removed.

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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