NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
For the past three years, News 8 has reported on five cases of underground couplings that leaked natural gas into homes, causing explosions, deaths and injuries.
These tragedies could have averted if the people inside their homes had smelled something. But despite the dangerous accumulation of natural gas in their homes, none of the survivors remember smelling a thing.
Why is this happening and what are officials doing about it?
Peggy Mantheiy of Irving makes a graceful attempt to overcome grief and injury, anger and confusion. She is memorializing her husband Joe, who died a horrible — and perhaps unnecessary — death.
The Mantheiys were blown out of their bed by an explosion in their home last January. Peggy survived with burns to her face, hands and legs.
Joe died from massive burns just days later.
While the exact cause of the blast has yet to be revealed, leaking natural gas compression couplings were discovered by Atmos Energy crews up and down the street.
On the night of the explosion, Irving fire officials took a video of leaking natural gas, bubbling up from the foundation of the Mantheiys' house.
Yet with all that gas, Peggy Mantheiy said they had no warning, and she doesn't recall smelling anything. "No, absolutely not," she insisted.
And it's not just Mantheiy, nor just this explosion.
Last November, Kristie Samons was in her home in Mesquite when a faulty underground compression coupling leaked natural gas into her house. And her warning?
"Absolutely nothing," she said. "I didn't smell anything. Had I smelled anything, I would have gotten out of the house."
One year ago, Brad Luttrell was badly burned when a compression coupling under the street in front of his house leaked gas into his home before exploding. Luttrell said he never smelled gas.
In 2007, when a leaking coupling caused the Pawlick's home in Cleburne to explode, no one smelled gas there, either.
In fact, according to the Cleburne Fire Marshal's report, the gas leaking into the house "had no odor of mercaptan as you would expect to find with natural gas."
Mercaptan is the chemical that's added to the gas to give it a distinctive "rotten egg" smell. Scientists around the globe now recognize that the odorant can fade when natural gas leaks through the earth and the mercaptan molecules attach themselves to the minerals in the soil.
But Texas Railroad Commission Executive Director John Tintera calls the phenomenon of odorant fade rare, and said believes the Cleburne Fire Marshal's report was wrong.
"I'm aware that the Fire Marshal has reported that, and I think that the reports are from the individuals," Tintera said. "We simply have no confirming information that would indicate that there was no odorant in the gas; quite the opposite. Our testing of the soil and the gas indicated that there were appropriate levels of odorant."
Atmos Energy, the company responsible for the gas line, dismisses the "phenomenon called odorant fading." Atmos says "we've never experienced it."
Atmos says odorant fade "appears to be more theory than fact."
But according to Don Deaver, the pipeline safety expert who investigated the Cleburne explosion, much of the smell had already dissipated by the time it traveled through the pipeline from West Texas.
"And knowing the detection thresholds for the materials, I was able to calculate how much was lost," he said. "Ninety-two percent was lost in the trunk line — the main line — before it even got to Cleburne."
Don Dever, who is an engineer, worked for Exxon for 33 years. He said the entire industry knows that odorant fade is real — except for state regulators and Atmos Energy.
"If they had done their research, they would find that there are many articles about it; it's common knowledge," Dever said.
Last month, at a Natural Gas Odorization Conference in Houston, the number-one topic for discussion was "odorant fade and loss".
Add to that the real-life experiences of the victims who say they never got a warning.
"It tells me there's an underlying problem, and they need to address that underlying problem," Dever said, adding that there is one obvious solution.
"The amount of odorant that's used has to be increased substantially — many, many, many times greater than is presently used," he said.
One person in favor of taking action is State Rep. Robert Miklos (D-Mesquite). He says neither State Railroad Commissioners nor Atmos Energy is doing enough to make North Texans safe.
"Every single time we've had these incidents, people haven't smelled the gas; they didn't even know the gas was there until the house exploded or until something caught on fire," Miklos said. "That tells us — and should tell the Railroad Commission and the industry — that there's a problem, that it needs to be addressed."
To date, the Texas Railroad Commission denies that the widely-used gas line compression coupling poses a particular problem. And there has been no apparent effort to investigate the issue of odorant fade.
The Railroad Commission instead has chosen to order Atmos to beef up its leak detection efforts and to replace compression couplings in Mesquite — but nowhere else.
There are an estimated three million compression couplings still in the ground in Texas.
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.