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Hundreds of Miles of Cast Iron Pipe Waiting to Fail

Photo of Daniel Horowitz

According to a recent story by Brett Shipp with WFAA in Dallas, Atmos Energy still has more than 800 miles of piping which is made of cast iron, a material that a federal agency advised gas providers to phase out as far back as 1973, citing issues with deterioration and corrosion. Following an explosion at a Dallas residence in September 2011, Atmos energy was cited by the Texas Railroad Commission because the company did not have a "cast-iron replacement program in place." On the night of the explosion, the family living in the home that exploded had just returned to their small apartment and turned on a light. The explosion knocked them to the floor, leaving them all hospitalized for weeks in intensive care with critical injuries. Mother and 5 year old child were close to death.

Hours after the explosion, Atmos workers unearthed a clue: a 19-inch fracture in a cast iron gas main in a nearby alley. The pipe was a mere three feet from the Mendez's apartment. Experts later hired by the family called the 80-year-old pipe corroded, brittle and destined to fail. "The age of this (pipe) and the condition of it was filthy. It was pitted, it was dirty, it even had roots growing into the inside of it," said pipeline safety expert and former Exxon employee Don Deaver. "It has had holes in it for years and years and years and years." Deaver said that particular cast iron pipe had been leaking for some time along with other points in the same line in that alley. Deaver said Atmos should have known that the pipe would fail, just like thousands of other cast-iron pipes in the Atmos Texas system have done for decades.

A log of cast iron leaks in the Atmos system on file at the Texas Railroad Commission headquarters reveal more than 2,300 repairs in the past four years. These are mostly in older Dallas neighborhoods in the southern sector; east Dallas and Uptown; and Highland Park as well as University Park. Older sections of Fort Worth are also heavily impacted. What's more, Deaver said cast-iron pipes have a lethal legacy of failure. "This is obsolete, inferior, degrading material that, over time, sees more and more things pulling and stressing on it, causing it to fail," he said. "It's a collision course, it's the perfect storm."

In January of 2012, an Austin man was killed when a cast-iron pipe corroded and cracked, leaking natural gas into his home, which later exploded. In 2011, in Allentown, Penn., a cast-iron pipe installed in 1928 was responsible for an explosion that killed five people. This is a problem that Atmos and other gas companies have known about for decades. In 1973, the National Transportation Safety Board, which regulates gas transmission lines, warned providers about corrosion of "cast-iron mains" and advised that they each take "necessary action." In 1985, the NTSB took a bolder step warning gas companies of "cast-iron main failures" and recommended that all "cast-iron mains...should be phased out." Another NTSB advisory came in 1992, recommending gas industry operators adopt "cast-iron piping replacement programs." Entex, now called CenterPoint Energy, did exactly that, removing all of its cast-iron pipes from below the city of Houston. The state's most populous city has had a cast iron-free natural gas distribution system since the early 1990s.

Meanwhile, Atmos still has 841 miles -- more than 2 percent of its entire Texas system -- of cast-iron piping. The vast majority remains under the alleys and streets of Dallas. Atmos Energy has repeatedly declined to provide News 8 with a map of where the cast iron is located. They have, however, mapped the locations of all the repairs since 2009. In a statement to News 8, Atmos said its "natural gas system is safe and reliable." Atmos says it "monitors and surveys its pipelines at a frequency that meets or exceeds government standards." Atmos says it has a "pro-active pipe replacement program" ... "developed in compliance with state and federal regulatory entities."

Yet last November, after the Texas Railroad Commission completed its investigation into the home explosion, the state issued Atmos a notice of violation in connection with that incident. Atmos was cited for not having a "cast-iron replacement program in place." In a recent legal deposition, Atmos representative Lance Andrews testified saying "there is no proactive cast-iron replacement program in (Atmos) Mid-Tex Division."

If you or someone you know has been injured by an explosion at home, contact the attorneys at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend by calling 713-396-3964 or 1-800-594-4884.

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