Atmos Customers Begin to Wait for Normal as Pipe Replacement Begins

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Jatsive Hernandez shows where a pipe in the backyard of her Midway Hollow home failed this week, resulting in a gas leak that sent her family to a hotel overnight (Photo by Bethany Erickson).

A day after Atmos Energy representatives sought to reassure the public that the unprecedented move of turning off gas service to 2,800 homes after a home explosion last week was going as planned, those in the shutdown zone are saying they’re not confident in the energy provider.

“I have no confidence,” said Lauren Berman. “The more this situation progresses, the more scared we get.”

Berman said that her family is flying back from vacation early because of the situation, and some neighbors have been saying there seems to be confusion about various procedures involved in turning off gas, among other things.

“Some neighbors state that Atmos told them they must come into each house to turn off gas appliances and some Atmos employees saying this is not necessary,” she said. “Several neighbors report their gas is still on when it was to be turned off yesterday.”

“It feels like no one knows the protocol and our neighborhood is at continued risk of exploding.”

Amanda Munn said she has little confidence either. “Very little communication,” she said. “No real warnings. I feel like they have put me and everyone in my neighborhood’s life in danger.”

“Another story of corporate greed at the expense of regular people,” Megan Bauer said. “And when you have no other choice for service providers, it is ripe for this kind of scene.”

Many customers have a lot of questions, too — questions they say have caused their confidence to wane that Atmos Energy will put safety first long term.
“I’d like to understand the timing of when Atmos was supposed to replace the old steel pipes (such as the 2011 mandates) and what Atmos has replaced during that time,” Rachel Bowers said. “I’m really looking for an understanding of what they were supposed to do versus what the actually did in order to assess confidence in them.”

“If they had a plan to resolve and had made progress, that is different to me than if they hadn’t planned or executed anything,” she added. “Also if approved rate increases were earmarked for this specifically – how much of that money has been used and how much is left?”

Other residents want to know if their larger-than-normal recent gas bills could’ve been a harbinger of the massive problem.

“Can we also look into the huge gas bills we got in January and February?” Elaine Luce asked. “Are the gas line failures a symptom of that?

“The explanation I heard for high bills that I’ve heard is that it’s a neighborhood average — in other words, the may not have been reading each house’s meter,” Warren Burt replied.

Jatsive Hernandez lives on Valley Ridge Road, and said she was also forced to evacuate for a night this week after she and her mother smelled gas in the backyard.

“We did that test on the pipe at the meter with the soapy water, and it bubbled, so we called Atmos and they came out and said there was a leak at the meter and in the alley,” she said.

They were sent to a hotel for the night, and on the way, they decided to report to the command center the city and Atmos set up on Webb Chapel Road, passing the evacuated Chapel Creek Apartments on the way.

“We got close to the apartments, and the smell was so strong,” she said. “We were only in that area for a few seconds, but it made us all a little light-headed.”

Hernandez and her family are back home now, despite being in the shutdown zone.

“When my parents built the upstairs addition, they had a separate electric water heater put in, so we actually can take hot showers,” she said.

More alarmingly, though, was a section of the old pipe left behind during the repair. Hernandez pointed out where it failed completely. “This wasn’t where they cut it — this is where it broke,” she said.

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Hernandez and neighbors knew that the crews in the neighborhood were working hard. Friday morning, they set up a snack station at the Hernandez home, offering workers hot coffee, water, and snacks.

As Hernandez greeted workers who sporadically arrived to grab a quick snack, more neighbors appeared bringing donuts, water, and pastries.

“We just wanted to show them that we might be angry at Atmos, but we’re not mad at them — we’re grateful for how hard they’re working to keep everyone safe,” she said during a lull.

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Customers in the shutdown zone set up a snack station for busy Atmos crews, to show their appreciation. “It’s not their fault,” said organizer Jatsive Hernandez.

Nearby, the Walnut Hill Recreation Center was calm. Last night, hundreds lined up for hours to collect their per diem for the week to help offset costs associated with either relocating or making their homes comfortable for the duration of the three-week stoppage, but by Monday mid-day, there was no line at all.

Yesterday, the National Transportation Safety Board, who is investigating the deadly home explosion last week and the events leading up to it, released an update on their work.

“The NTSB decided to investigate the accident and a team of three investigators arrived on-scene the morning of Feb. 25,” the agency said. “During the initial assessment of the accident site, investigators learned of two other homes in the immediate vicinity that were damaged by two separate explosions/fires two days earlier.”

“Part of the NTSB’s comprehensive investigation is looking at the gas company’s integrity management and operations procedures and their response to the accident, as well as the actions of state and local emergency response agencies,” the update continued. “The Railroad Commission of Texas and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration  are parties to the investigation and are providing technical assistance and support to the NTSB investigator in charge.”

The agency said it has so far interviewed  11 Dallas Fire and Rescue Department personnel and four ATMOS Energy employees who responded to the Feb. 21 and 22 house fires, but that rain had hampered the evidence collection process and the excavation of the lines.

A leak has been found at a service tee connection to 3524 Espanola Drive,” the agency continued. “This 6-foot long distribution mainline segment has been collected and will be shipped to the NTSB materials laboratory in Washington for examination. The NTSB plans to conduct further pressure tests on customer gas lines at 3534 Espanola Drive in the next three to four days.”

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In these NTSB photos, the failed service tee connection to 3524 Espanola Drive, is tagged with NTSB evidence tags in preparation for transport to the NTSB’s materials lab in Washington (Photos courtesy the NTSB).

Overall, the early theory seems to be that geology and elderly pipe caused a situation ripe for tragedy. Last night, Atmos Energy senior vice president of utility operations David Park explained the composition of the pipe, its age, and the geology the company thinks helped contribute to the system failure.

“This was a steel piping system – coated steel,” he explained. “It was installed about the time of the houses of the area — I believe the late 40s or 50s for many of the houses around here.”

Park said that he was not sure what kinds of couplings were used, and was not sure if the original ones had ever been replaced.

Park said the company hired an independent geological expert to help explain why so many pipes had failed in the area that hugs Marsh Lane from Walnut Hill to Northwest Highway.

“This geological expert that we’ve brought in helped us to understand this particular coming together of two soil types,” he said. “It’s referred to as a fault line, but it’s really two soils that come together, and when the large rain event happened, it resulted in a particular movement that put stresses on our system.”

The area has had the rainiest February on record, the National Weather Service data shows, with 11.31 inches of rain.

“Geologic conditions surrounding the natural gas pipelines in the vicinity of 3534 Espanola Drive is one of the many potential causes of the three events on Espanola Drive that the NTSB will examine in the course of its investigation,” the NTSB said Thursday.

The agency said it is in the early stages still of its investigation, and investigators will remain on scene for about 10 days or so. A preliminary report will be issued shortly after they are done collecting evidence, but the agency cautioned that this report would not state what caused the home explosion.

“Preliminary reports do not contain analysis and do not state probable cause, rather, a preliminary report details the significant facts investigators have gathered and verified at that stage of the investigation,” the update explained. “NTSB major investigations take between 12 to 24 months to complete.”

(Map courtesy the Environmental Defense Fund)

According to data from the Environmental Defense Fund, 13 percent of mains in Dallas are cast iron or other leak-prone material. The EDF also said readings collected between January 2015 and February 2016 found an average of one leak for every two miles driven within the study area.

“About 50 percent of the mains are more than 50 years old,” the EDF said. “As part of a comprehensive pipe replacement program, Atmos Energy Mid-Tex Division is on schedule to eliminate all known cast iron in its system by 2021.”

As part of our continued coverage, we are also hosting an ongoing AMA on Facebook here