Mismarked gas lines create more hazards

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on November 13, 2010 at 12:09 AM

Updated Sunday, Nov 14 at 12:24 AM

DALLAS - When an unmarked, gas transmission line was mistakenly hit this summer killing one man, it appeared to be little more than a tragic mishap.

But since that time, News 8 has learned unmarked or poorly-mapped gas lines are putting lives at risk all over North Texas.

The warning signs are everywhere, throughout North Texas and the Barnett Shale.

High-pressure natural gas lines form a complex and volatile subterranean maze.

Pipeline companies and state regulators repeatedly implore Texans to call the 8-1-1, "Call before you dig" hotline, which is exactly what James Neese of Oklahoma did before he struck a hidden 36-inch gas line in Johnson County last June.

But the pipeline owner, Enterprise Products Partners,  never showed up to mark the line, as required by law and the only permanent marker was found a quarter mile away.

Custom builder, Jim Queen, also called the 8-1-1 hotline before digging in Collin County last year.

An 8-inch, high pressure gas line operated by Energy Transfer Partners was somewhere beneath the soil in the town of Melissa where his operator was preparing to excavate but as it turned out, Energy Transfer had mismarked its line by 78 feet.

Queen's backhoe operator, thinking it was safe to dig, nicked the line and ripped it open.

Queen and his worker say they were blasted with a plume of gas, dirt and debris.

Queen says he has suffered lung damage, is glad to be alive but outraged at such a careless mistake.

"There was no reason for it, absolutely no reason for it," said Queen.  "They marked their competitor's gas line, 78 feet away from their own."

Ed Workman of Graham, west of Possum Kingdom, also feels lucky to be alive after hitting an unmarked gas line on his ranch while grating his road last month.

"I came right out of my cab and water, gas and everything was hitting me," said Workman.  "I was barely hanging on, trying to keep from blowing me off and I went out the back."

The Texas Railroad Commission is in charge of making sure pipeline companies monitor and accurately map their lines.

"I would say yes we do have a handle on where all the pipelines are buried in our state," said John Tintera, executive director of the commission.  "We are confident because of the requirements of the Railroad Commission to have plats that are submitted to us."

Yet a few miles to the south of where Ed Workman nearly lost his life, ranchers are finding unmarked and unburied lines all over their property.

Austin attorney, Brandy Bramlett, represents a rancher whose land is littered with unmarked, high pressure, gas gathering lines.

Her client is afraid to dig on his land because one of the unmarked lines is identified on his land map as being in four different locations.

And that's a big problem for ranchers.  Gas gathering lines, which run from the well-head to the processing plant, are not considered a threat and are not regulated by the state.

That means pipeline companies don't have to spend money on marking or burying gas gathering lines.

It's the same kind of gas line Ed Workman says could have taken his life.

"I don't think they care, they're just going for the money," said Workman.

In Jim Queen's case, his worker nicked a regulated transmission line.

And even though the pipeline company mismarked its line, a violation punishable by a maximum $10,000 fine, the Railroad Commission declined to fine Energy Transfer and "no penalty letter" was issued.

Why did Energy Transfer fail to know where its line was buried in Collin County? Company officials declined to speak with News 8. Their response to us was in the form of a statement via an e-mail.  "It is our responsibility to ensure that our pipelines meet or exceed all applicable rules and regulations -- this is at the core of everything we do," they wrote.

State Representative Lon Burnam (D) Fort Worth, says he has tried many times to pass legislation refining the role of the Texas Railroad Commission and tighten the rules governing the oil and gas industry.

Each time, he says, public safety has taken a back seat.

"The laws were always passed with deference for private profit over the public interest," said Burnam.  "Nothing is going to change in this regard until we change the attitude by the Railroad Commissioners themselves until we structurally change the laws."

But Railroad Commission officials say most of the pipeline accidents are due to excavators not calling 8-1-1 before they dig and that call can save lives.

E-mail: bshipp@wfaa.com

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