Twelve hours before a fatal house explosion last month, a high-ranking Atmos official notified Texas Railroad Commission officials that they were investigating two other natural gas-related fires.
“Atmos Energy has been monitoring a situation in a residential area of Dallas near Love Field,” Marlo Sutton, Atmos’ director of Regulatory and Compliance wrote in the Feb. 22 email. “As an enhanced safety measure, Atmos crews are continuing to monitor the surrounding area for potential leaks and will make repairs as needed.”
Sutton also writes that there have been “no evacuations or road closures.”
Twelve hours after Sutton sent that email, 12-year-old Michelita Rogers was dead and several of her family members were injured. The entire neighborhood was evacuated. Atmos began extensive repair work in the area.
“With that first one going up there, Atmos should have been swarming all over that huge area with an extensive leak investigations before anything else happened,” says Don Deaver, a Houston-based pipeline safety expert. “They should have eliminated the gas pressure and evacuated the people out right away until they prove it was safe. When a second one goes off, and you still don't go into a full emergency response type of mode, you're just sitting there with a don't-fix-it until-it's-broke mentality.”
The emails were obtained through an open records request to the Texas Railroad Commission, the agency that regulates oil and gas companies.
John Barr, an attorney representing the Rogers family, said Sutton’s email reveals a “heedless disregard for the safety of the people that live in that area.” He says the company could and should have notified the neighborhood after the first two fires about what was going on.
“Why not tell the people and let them make an informed decision about whether they want to run the risk of staying in their home,” he said.
The string of incidents began Feb. 21 with a fire on Durango Drive. Homeowner David Lemus' face was burned in the fire. The next day, Feb. 22, at a house a few doors down, a man is burned when his stove explodes. It’s after that fire that Sutton sends her email to commission officials.
A day later, Feb. 23, the Rogers house explodes on Espanola Drive, killing Michelita.
On the morning of the explosion, Stephanie Weidman, program director of the commission’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, wrote in an email that she’d spoken to Sutton. Sutton told her they repaired a leak the night before the explosion.
According to commission documents, 28 leaks were found in the immediate evacuation area shortly after the explosion.
The line running in the alley between the homes also was so leaky that it couldn't hold pressure when it was capped off. It’s something Deaver says they should have done after the first fire.
“Atmos has found out many years ago that there's money to be made to be cutting corners on regulatory and safety compliance,” he says.
Atmos declined comment, referring all questions to the National Transportation Safety Board.