News 8 Investigates
Brett Shipp reports
IRVING - State officials say Atmos Energy is to blame for a natural gas explosion in Irving that leveled a house and severely injured its owner last May. Atmos says it is not at fault.
But beyond the dissension - and lurking beneath the North Texas soil - are tens of thousands of pipeline fittings that are being blamed for at least two house explosions in the past two years.
Two years ago, a News 8 investigation into a fatal house explosion in Wylie led to the state-ordered removal of 60,000 dangerous compression couplings attached to home gas meters.
Now there is new evidence pointing to a pattern of fatal flaws in another type of coupling - an aging piece of hardware that one critic calls a "ticking time bomb."
On May 3, leaking natural gas ignited, sending bits of an Irving home and its contents flying and its owner to the hospital suffering third degree burns.
The agency that regulates the natural gas industry, the Texas Railroad Commission, has now issued a report, blaming the leak on a compression coupling joining two natural gas pipes under the street.
Specifically, this was a NORMAC compression coupling. It's the same style coupling blamed for a house explosion in Cleburne two years ago that killed Hazel Pawlick and her daughter Hazel Sanderson.
That a NORMAC compression coupling failed again should not have come as a surprise to state officials; several reports on file with the Texas Railroad Commission report trouble with the NORMAC style coupling dating back to the 1970s.
The primary problem is "elasticity being lost from the rubber gaskets" holding the pipes together.
A technician working for Lone Star Gas - which owned and operated the pipeline at the time - complained in another report that the "rubber gaskets contract after being in service." The technician called it a "frequent occurrence" on couplings that have been in service for a "number of years."
In the case of the NORMAC coupling that failed in front of the Pawlicks' home, tests show not only had the rubber gasket worn out, the fitting itself was improperly manufactured.
The Pawlicks' attorney, John Curney, says the NORMAC compression coupling will continue to fail because of the gasket inside that holds the pipe in place.
"You are talking about gaskets that have been in service for 40 years," Curney said. "That's like your grandpa's tires on his old Chevy pickup truck. You don't want to use the same tire on that truck for 45 years. At some point in time it's going to begin to get old and crack and worn."
In a videotaped deposition for a lawsuit settled by Atmos earlier this year, an Atmos operations manager testified the NORMAC couplings are known to leak.
Even though the NORMAC coupling is now being blamed for the Irving explosion, Atmos officials deny they are at fault.
"The flow rate of this small leak is insufficient to have contributed to the Irving explosion," the company said in a response to the Texas Railroad Commission's Safety Division. "This incident is not reportable (to federal safety officials)."
But state regulators are not only still blaming Atmos - they're hitting them with three alleged safety violations, saying "A hazardous leak at the listed site was not repaired promptly."
The Railroad Commission also cited Atmos for maintaining "insufficient records" and said Atmos "did not maintain a record of the design and installation of new and or used pipe..."
State officials also found three other gas leaks within two blocks of the Irving explosion site.
While the verbal tug-of-war rages on, some say the larger issue remains unaddressed.
If pipeline technicians knew of NORMAC coupling flaws three decades ago, why has the Texas Railroad Commission failed to take steps to have them removed?
"Despite the fact that the Railroad Commission has those documents in their possession, to my awareness they have still not taken any action to remove what I considered to be ticking time bombs from service," Curney said.
Atmos officials have declined an interview with News 8 on this issue, citing ongoing discussions with state officials and ongoing litigation.
As of today, the Texas Railroad Commission has no plans to address the nearly 800,000 aging compression couplings still in the ground, although the agency does have a standing order to have them removed it they are discovered.