NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
DALLAS –– State regulatory officials ruled this week that Atmos Energy is not mandated to remove more than 800 miles of natural gas piping made of cast-iron, a material that the federal government began warning gas operators to phase out in 1973 because of concerns over deterioration.
In Austin, Texas Gas Service, which provides natural gas to customers in Central Texas, will voluntarily remove its dangerous and decaying 16 miles of cast-iron gas pipes. Its decision comes after a fatal explosion was blamed on a gas leak from a pipe made of that metal.
Despite a similar explosion in Dallas in 2011, state regulatory officials say only the worst cast-iron piping in North Texas must be removed.
As previously reported by News 8, the city of Houston has been free of cast-iron natural gas pipes since the early 1990s.
At last report, Atmos Energy still had 800 miles of cast-iron pipes in its North Texas distribution system, more than 2 percent of its entire Texas network. Company officials say the material is still safe and reliable.
That claim is despite a 2011 house explosion in Oak Cliff, which critically injured a family of three. Just a few feet away from the house that exploded, state investigators with the Texas Railroad Commission found a 19-inch crack in an 80-year-old cast-iron pipe still leaking natural gas.
Yet the state's top natural gas regulatory official said a mandatory removal of cast-iron pipes is not necessary. This is also despite the National Transportation Safety Board’s warning in 1973 that providers should worry about corrosion of “cast-iron mains” and take “necessary action.”
Another warning came in 1985, when NTSB regulators suggested all “cast-iron mains … should be phased out.” And, more sternly, a 1992 warning recommended gas industry operators adopt “cast-iron piping replacement programs.”
"I'm in favor of addressing the worst 5 percent every year,” said Barry Smitherman, Chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission. “If we can identify more than that we should, but our current policy is to identify the worst 5 percent."
As for the leaking 80-year-old cast-iron pipe located next to the Oak Cliff house that exploded? The Texas Railroad Commission last month reversed its original findings, now ruling that the Atmos pipe was not to blame; that the family's gas stove may have been responsible.
The reversal was based on the testimony of an expert witness hired by Atmos to fight a lawsuit filed by the injured family. Atmos settled with the family in February.
"The ruling ignores the evidence and just accepts Atmos' hypothesis without even asking the family or us or the family's experts for any input whatsoever," said Clay Miller, attorney for the Mendez family, who were injured in the explosion.
Miller said the Railroad Commission's reversal is puzzling, as is its refusal to order Atmos to pull all cast-iron pipes out of the ground.
"The facts have been there for 30 years that these cast-iron pipes are blowing up houses and these cast-iron pipes are not getting any younger,” Miller said. “They are just going to blow up even more houses."
Atmos officials said they are meeting and exceeding state rules on pipe removal, and spending twice the amount this year on removing them from what it spent in 2012.
An estimated 800 miles of cast iron pipe still exists in the Atmos system. Most of it, about 600 miles, is under Dallas streets and rights of way.