By The Dallas Morning News
After a deadly house explosion in northwest Dallas, Atmos Energy is facing two substantial repair jobs: Not only must it replace problematic pipes carrying natural gas but it also must improve communication lines with all its consumers.
Twelve-year-old Linda “Michellita” Rogers died Feb. 23 when her home was blown off its foundation. Since that tragedy, we’ve asked many questions of Atmos officials — on behalf of North Texas residents — regarding the safety of natural gas service.
Assurances from Atmos lean heavily on the several billion dollars it has invested in infrastructure since 2005 and its plans to spend more. Company executives also point to the safety regulations under which they operate and the training of field personnel.
Yet it’s understandable if residents don’t feel completely at ease, especially given Dallas Morning News investigative reporting that exposed new concerns.
Atmos officials who met with us last week were adamant that the company had no way to know the danger the Midway Hollow neighborhood potentially faced. They brought with them a consultant with expertise in civil engineering and geology who explained how heavy rains and unique soil composition created a “sudden and unexplainable” problem.
But in a preliminary report Friday, the National Transportation Safety Board said Atmos became aware of gas leaks in the neighborhood Jan. 1 and had made various repairs.
Records obtained by The News show that at least one emergency repair was ordered in January after Atmos found a leak in the alley behind Linda Rogers’ home. The company says that problem, which it described as non-hazardous, was repaired by Jan. 29. Additionally, gas-related house fires were reported nearby on Feb. 21 and 22.
Among The News’ other findings is that Atmos can take weeks or even months to fully repair the most dangerous types of gas leaks. Company leaders insist they take action immediately to eliminate any potential danger.
Atmos says it wants to be more open with customers and, as part of that effort, released a map last week that generally shows where steel, cast iron and plastic pipelines are located in Dallas.
The company says it has replaced 400 miles of cast iron pipes — generally the oldest in the system — in North Texas and plans to replace the remaining 400 miles.
While plastic pipes are the preferred choice, Atmos maintains the steel ones are safe. Yet in 2010 the Texas Railroad Commission considered requiring gas utilities to replace all steel lines following several North Texas explosions.
When asked about the decades-long timeline for replacing steel pipes, here was Atmos’ response: “Is it fast enough?” CEO Michael Haefner said. “That’s a good debate to have.”
Answers like that are unnerving. As Atmos finishes the replacement of the entire gas distribution system in Midway Hollow, it needs to dig deeper to determine how best to restore consumer confidence.
Perhaps that’s a full accounting on its website of work being performed throughout the system or better explanations of what technicians finds during service calls. But giving customers the full facts is the next step in Atmos’ pledge for greater transparency and improved communication.