Pipeline operator in fatal blast has a history of violations

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on October 27, 2010 at 11:42 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 29 at 9:34 AM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

DALLAS - Many North Texans may remember the images of flames towering into the air after a pipeline ruptured last summer just west of Cleburne.

The family of the man who burned to death will certainly never forget. And, now that accident details have begun to emerge, they may never be able to forgive.

On that fateful summer day, billowing smoke and shooting flames could be seen after a 36-inch gas transmission line was mistakenly struck by a worker down below. On the ground, however, was a much more tragic tale.

James Neese, a 45-year-old electrical contractor from Oklahoma, father of seven and husband, had his family with him on the job site that day on June 7. The roar of the explosions will forever haunt his wife and children.

"My first initial reaction was to call him,"said Lavonne Neese, James' wife. "I didn't get an answer."

Her worst fears were quickly realized, as were those of Neese's brother Stacy, who was blown off his truck 200 yards away.

"When you see an explosion of that magnitude, I was basically watching it as it started building, you knew there wasn't no hope," he said.

No one knew a huge gas transmission line lurked beneath the soil where they were digging. Neese and his company were working to bury a large electrical pole and had followed the law by calling the 811 line locate hotline seven days before digging. Two pipeline companies showed up to mark their lines.

But, according to state investigators, a third company, Enterprise Products Partners of Houston, did not mark its lines.

In fact, in its official report, The Texas Railroad Commission found Enterprise's closest pipeline marker was a "quarter mile from the incident" surrounded by "high vegetation."

And Enterprise's pipeline map submitted to the state "lacked details such as built date, pipe depth and inadequate pipe intersections."

But, the line mis-location incident was not Enterprise's first. Records obtained by WFAA show prior to the deadly explosion last June, Enterprise was cited by the state for mis-marking or misidentifying its pipeline seven times since November of 2007.

In each case, an unsuspecting third party hit the hidden line while digging. In April of 2008, an excavator hit one of Enterprise's mis-marked, 36-inch lines near Sweetwater, Texas. It was the same unmarked line responsible for the death of James Neese.

On August 12, two months after Neese's death, a worker operating a backhoe struck another Enterprise pipeline south of San Antonio.

Once again, Enterprise had allegedly mis-marked its pipeline, this time by 30 feet.

Records also show over the past three years, Enterprise has received 135 violations notices from the state for a variety of offenses, including "mis-marking" lines," "not maintaining maps" and not "protecting their pipelines".

But, rules in place at the Texas Railroad Commission allow for no penalties other than a schedule of fines.

"It's not excusable, but under the system that regulates this pipeline company, there's not enough in place to make a difference to make them change their ways," said Marquette Wolf, the Neese's family attorney, as well as a critic of pipeline safety regulations in Texas.

Among his complaints, the $120,000 fine proposed by the Railroad Commission against Enterprise in the death of James Neese.

"In response to that, a fine that's not even a slap on the wrist," Wolf said. "It's barely a tap on the wrist. It's nothing that would stop a company that's revenue is $40 billion a year. It will do nothing as a deterrent or punishment."

In the case of the mis-marked line struck two months after Neese's death, The Railroad Commission first recommended a $1,000 fine against Enterprise. Last month, the amount was lowered to a recommended $500.

Perhaps one of the reasons behind the poorly marked lines is that when pipeline companies submit their maps to the state, officials ask that they be rated for accuracy. According to the Railroad Commissions own guidelines, the maps are considered "excellent" if they are within 50 feet of being accurate. They are rated "good" if they are within 301 to 500 feet of being accurate.

WFAA has obtained an e-mail from a Railroad Commission staff member who admits "whatever mapping we have on this permit must be taken with a grain of salt".

The poorly mapped pipeline she was referring to is the same unmarked, 36-inch Enterprise pipeline mistakenly struck by James Neese last June.

"A tragic loss of life is just that; it's a very sad thing," said John Tintera, the executive director of the Railroad Commission.

Tintera said each pipeline company, not the state, is responsible for the accuracy of pipeline location maps.

"They are to indicate where the locations are, but they are not exact locations of pipelines,"he said. "They should not be used as a guide of where you can dig."

Tintera said his agency has levied $1.5 million in fines over pipeline incursions last year. He said the current number of incursions is down one third from the previous last year, and also stated the system for identifying pipelines in Texas is perfectly safe.

Yet, five months after her husband's death, Neese's widow still searches for an answer as to why such a safe system failed.

"Maybe if they could explain to my kids why their daddy doesn't get to come home, they can tell them every day it's going to get better because it don't get better," she said.

"Pipeline safety is not just an operating necessity, but a public safety imperative," said Rick Rainey, a spokesman for Enterprise wrote in a statement. "We have made enhancements to our pipeline locating system to prevent these types of occurrences."

But, it's not just Enterprise whose lines are mis-marked. In the coming days, WFAA will report on more examples of just how often hidden lines are being struck.

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