By The Dallas Morning News
It’s understandable that residents throughout Dallas are unsettled by the possibility that steel pipelines running under their neighborhoods could lead to deadly natural gas explosions.
Last month, 12-year-old Linda “Michellita” Rogers died when her home, near Love Field, was blown off its foundation. A federal inquiry into the accident has found at least one gas leak on that property.
Atmos Energy subsequently shut off gas service to more than 2,800 customers in the northwest Dallas neighborhood while it replaces the steel pipes with more flexible plastic lines.
This is not a problem confined to a single neighborhood. Steel pipelines were commonly used at the time of residential construction in the M Streets, Lakewood, Lake Highlands, Swiss Avenue and parts of Oak Cliff and Pleasant Grove.
On behalf of Dallas residents, we are calling for answers to these questions:
1. How worried should residents be about the safety of their natural gas service?
After last month’s fatal explosion, Atmos officials hired a geotechnical engineer who found irregular formations in the northwest Dallas neighborhood.
“With the extended rain that we’ve had, the amount of rain, runoff and how that flows underground, certain (parts) of those formations expand up and put pressure on our system thus causing leakage,” Atmos Senior Vice President Kevin Akers said.
The most recent interaction of heavy rain and clay soil wasn’t confined to northwest Dallas. So while Atmos says it will continue to survey for natural gas issues elsewhere, more details are needed.
2. What percentage of Dallas homes are still served by steel pipes?
Even if you live in an area of homes built in the 1950s or before, that doesn’t mean the pipes are old. They may have already been replaced. But even knowing what percentage of homes is vulnerable would be useful context.
3. How has Atmos handled pipeline replacement since the Texas Railroad Commission adopted its 2011 comprehensive pipeline safety rule?
Rather than order the removal of all steel pipes, the commission required natural gas distribution companies to survey their systems for the greatest potential threats and come up with a replacement plan.
Since that ruling, Atmos says, it has switched out 1,700 miles of distribution main and 250,000 steel service lines in North Texas. Now it says it will spend $1 billion on infrastructure.
What’s missing is a methodical assessment of how Atmos managed the pipeline switch-outs each year since 2011.
4. Even if Atmos won’t publicly provide info on which areas of Dallas still have steel pipes, will it share info with individual homeowners?
Atmos claims that publicly providing details about which neighborhoods still employ the steel lines would pose a “security risk.” But the company would be well-served to provide the easiest possible way for customers to learn more about their own equipment as well as that in the surrounding neighborhood.
5. Should the Texas Railroad Commission order a blanket replacement for all steel pipelines?
At the very least, a reassessment needs to be made about whether it’s time to do more — even if that inconveniences residents or even necessitates a fair rate hike.
As all parties with a stake in the pipeline replacement investigation move forward, the focus must be on the consumer. And transparency is a big piece of that. The best course of action now is to be upfront about the problems we face so we can all steel ourselves for the work that needs to be done.