SHREVEPORT, La. – The casting adamant accustomed gas capital that served Richard Williams’ turn-of-the-century home in this Southern academy town was as old as the abode itself: It was built during Shreveport’s aboriginal gas-fueled bang in 1911.
When that activity cracked in 2016, the gas congenital up boring and silently in a afford abaft Williams’ home. All it took was an agitation source – a lit cigar – to atom the aerial aggressive that would booty his life.
The 65-year-old analyst was one of at atomic 264 bodies dead in natural gas leaks, fires and explosions since 1990, a USA TODAY assay of federal abstracts shows. Added than 1,600 people have been injured.
The accustomed gas industry and its government regulators accept known of the dangers of aperture gas pipelines for decades. After a baleful gas access in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1990, the National Transportation Assurance Board recommended utilities alter their casting adamant pipes “in a planned, appropriate manner.”
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Twenty-eight years later, the utilities still haven’t accomplished the job.
The assignment is expensive, generally difficult, and sometimes perilous. Gas crews advance casting adamant aqueduct in Massachusetts in September inadvertently ignited fires and explosions that destroyed 131 buildings, killing one person, injuring 21 and leaving hundreds homeless.
That disaster – and hundreds of others across the country – illuminate the adverse pressures on the industry as it tries to antithesis assurance with consumer demands for cheap, convenient energy.
State annual commissions are beneath burden from customer groups to accumulate activity ante down. Grassroots groups argue new pipelines in their neighborhoods. And generally there aren’t abundant able activity workers to do the work safely.
Utilities replacing leaking gas pipes receive only spotty blank from a burst arrangement of accompaniment and federal safety regulations. Government regulators accept abundantly larboard it to the utilities to actuate for themselves what their better assurance vulnerabilities are.
Underneath our anxiety and beneath our streets sit added than 2.2 million afar of pipelines that backpack accustomed gas into our homes and businesses. They bear a about bargain and clean-burning ammunition that cooks our meals, heats our showers and keeps us warm.
But abundant of that basement is old, outdated, anachronistic or damaged. Aback the pipes aperture or rupture, the after-effects can be catastrophic.
Columbia Gas of Massachusetts had just started assignment on its ambitious plan to alter casting adamant gas mains in the Merrimack Valley of Northeastern Massachusetts when an anxiety went off at its ascendancy centermost in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 13.
Pressure in the arrangement was spiking.
Within minutes, homes beyond the cities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover began to explode.
Federal board say a assignment aggregation was accustomed adulterated orders. They were directed to aish an old pipe, but not a acknowledgment band that alerted the arrangement to a bead in pressure.
More: Federal prosecutors accessible bent analysis into Massachusetts accustomed gas explosions
When the old casting adamant capital was taken out of service, the arrangement detected the accident in burden and compensated by pumping added gas. Pressure swelled to 12 times the absolute for which the arrangement was built.
In this angel booty from video provided by WCVB in Boston, bonfire absorb a home in Lawrence, Mass, a suburb of Boston, on Sept. 13.
WCVB via AP
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said the adventure raises austere questions about whether absolute federal regulations are abundant to assure the public.
“The accustomed gas industry needs to apprentice their assurance acquaint so this doesn’t appear again,” Markey says. “If they don’t, this will be repeated.”
The accustomed gas industry says that’s already happening.
“I apperceive a game-changing adventure aback I see it,” says aloft activity assurance official Christina Sames, now carnality admiral of the American Gas Association. “And this was, in my opinion, a game-changing incident.”
The Massachusetts explosions could become the best big-ticket accustomed gas adversity ever, for a bounded utility that was already spending $80 actor this year to advancement an crumbling infrastructure.
But all beyond the country, smaller, beneath spectacular natural gas incidents accept been just as lethal.
► DETROIT: Neighbors say they complained of a gas odor for canicule afore a abode on Trenton Artery exploded in 2015.
Eugene Trump Jr., 19, was in the basement of his father’s abode with his girlfriend, who admired to smoke a hookah. A lighter sparked a blast that blew out the basement windows and afire Trump’s clothes.
“I went alfresco and his dad was captivation him in his lap with a absolute about him,” says Nicole Elliott, who lived aing door. “His face was burned. His clothes were austere into his skin. His dad was austere from putting out the flames. It was gruesome.”
Trump died from his injuries. Crews traced the leak to a absurd 6-inch casting adamant gas capital installed in 1923. Trump’s ancestor accomplished a arcane out-of-court adjustment with DTE Energy. A spokeswoman for the utility said it has no almanac of odor complaints afore the explosion.
Emergency cadre move abroad as a gas blaze burns afterwards an access at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis Aug. 2, 2017.
David Joles, Minneapolis Star Tribune via AP
► MINNEAPOLIS: At the Christian Minnehaha Academy aftermost year, annual crews were moving the gas beat from the basement of one building to the outside, breadth it could be added calmly read. As allotment of the work, they inadvertently disconnected an active accustomed gas line. Worried about a accessible explosion, they fled the area.
The academy exploded. It was aboriginal August, and academy was not in session, but two agents associates were dead and seven bodies were injured. Centerpoint Activity acclimatized a accusation with the ancestors of agent Ruth Berg, one of the victims.
► MILLERSVILLE, PENNSYLVANIA: A woman out for a airing on a cul-de-sac of newer homes in Pennsylvania Dutch country aftermost year smelled gas and alleged the bounded utility. A aggregation evacuated a homeowner and was searching for the aperture aback the abode exploded, killing one worker.
The NTSB abhorrent an afield installed automated collective acclimated to tap the annual band into the gas capital aback the subdivision was complete in 1998.
Similar borer tees were responsible for explosions in adjacent West Lampeter Township, Pennsylvania, and in Knoxville, Tennessee, the bureau said in a assurance abode issued in June.
The Pennsylvania Accessible Utilities Commission hit UGI Utilities this ages with a $2 actor accomplished for the Millersville explosion.
Aerial photo of the aition larboard by a home access in Millersville, Pa. in July 2017. One gas artisan was dead and two others were injured.
Blaine Shahan, LNP Media Group/Lancaster Online. Acclimated with permission.
Natural gas explosions reported to the U.S. Activity and Hazardous Materials Assurance Administration since 1990 accept bulk at atomic $1.2 billion. That includes only incidents in gas administering systems – the mains and annual curve that carry gas to barter – not the beyond manual pipelines that backpack gas from accompaniment to state, or leaks that action inside homes and businesses.
More: The added bulk of old pipes: Accustomed gas leaks booty an bread-and-er and ecology toll
The incidents accept a range of causes. Often, accustomed gas can ammunition an absolute fire, authoritative it added explosive, annihilative and lethal.
One accepted factor: Old infrastructure. Decades of freezing and thawing, corrosion, vibration and alive soil can eat abroad at the cast adamant and basic animate pipes that were already the accompaniment of the art in accustomed gas distribution.
Nationally, added than 53,000 afar of accustomed gas mains were congenital afore 1940. Those annoyed systems feed ammunition to millions of homes and businesses, abounding of them in and about the older automated cities of the Northeast and Midwest – New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit – and places breadth the activity industry aboriginal boomed: Houston and Dallas.
More damage can be acquired by contractors alive on gas pipes or added utilities, or homeowners digging in their yards afterwards calling the utilities first.
Pipes that are installed afield can sit silently for years underground afore acceptable a problem. Aperture gas agilely builds up to aloof the appropriate absorption – about amid 5 percent and 15 percent – before a atom or flame detonates the atomic mixture.
Progress adjoin advance the basement has been slow.
In 2011, then-Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood alleged on the industry to acceleration up its backup of crumbling casting adamant pipes and asked Congress to add added inspectors and access penalties for violations.
A USA TODAY analysis in 2014 begin added than 85,000 afar of crumbling casting adamant and bare-steel gas pipes still in use, despite decades of government warnings.
By the end of 2017, that cardinal was 71,000.
Columbia Gas of Massachusetts replaced 42 percent of its casting adamant lines in the last decade, but it still had 471 afar of the old pipes at the end of aftermost year.
In a accompaniment authoritative filing in 2017 – the year before the explosions – the annual accurately cited the adversity in replacing pipes in older, automated cities such as Lawrence.
Utility contractors dig up the alleyway aloft accustomed gas curve forth Dracut Artery in Lawrence, Mass., Sept. 20, 2018.
Charles Krupa, AP
“In these areas, it is absurd that the aggregation will be able to plan and undertake a ample cardinal of basement backup projects,” Columbia Gas said. “The mains and casework are about amid in densely busy burghal and business districts with roadways that are paved from architecture to architecture and are heavily chock-full with added underground utilities and structures, authoritative accession of new capital problematic,” Columbia Gas said.
Replacing old mains has its own dangers. According to the NTSB, the Massachusetts fires were acquired by an absurdity aback Columbia Gas took an old band out of service.
Investigators say the utility failed to acquaint a assignment crew to abstract a pressure-sensing system in the old line.
When the band went out of service, the sensors detected the bead in pressure. The arrangement compensated by increasing the breeze of gas. Pressure congenital to added than a dozen times the akin the system was congenital for, causing explosions and fires beyond three cities.
Mark McDonald says the accident was cat-and-mouse to happen. He’s admiral of Nat Gas Consulting and an able attestant in lawsuits over gas explosions.
“We didn’t booty affliction of this botheration for decades and decades and decades,” he said. “Now there’s a blitz to alter this basement – acutely with the absorbed to advance the assurance of the system. But not accepting the appropriate safeguards and affection workers could annual added access hazards such as this.”
A chicken gas band banderole charcoal abaft the Shreveport home of Richard Williams, who died afterwards accepting astringent burns from a 2016 gas access in his aback yard.
Henrietta Wildsmith, The Shreveport Times via USA TODAY Network
Shreveport is the better burghal in Northern Louisiana, a region that saw a accustomed gas bang in 2008 with the analysis of the Haynesville Shale. Dozens of landowners became millionaires, and the field now provides 8.5 percent of all accustomed gas in the United States.
But the city’s history with the ammunition goes aback abundant further. A century ago, Shreveport was the aals of Louisiana’s aboriginal accustomed gas pipeline, a aqueduct from Caddo Field that fueled a community whose citizenry about tripled in the aboriginal two decades of the 20th century.
In 1911, a anew congenital casting adamant gas capital brought that accustomed gas to homes forth Fairfield Avenue, afresh one of the city’s best absolute neighborhoods.
After a aeon of service, the main began to leak.
Williams, the Shreveport psychiatrist, lived on one of the best arresting thoroughfares in the city. But the fetor caused by the accustomed gas aperture in the neighborhood was so able that you could aroma it active bottomward the street.
Richard Williams, a 65-year-old Shreveport psychiatrist, died in 2016 afterwards a actuality acutely austere in a accustomed gas access in his aback yard.
Family of Richard Williams
Next-door acquaintance Jimmy Harris operates a bed and breakfast out of his 1905 Queen Anne home.
“I wasn’t that concerned, because I acquainted like if it was a big above assurance affair that the gas aggregation would accept taken affliction of it,” he says. “It was a accepted accident every day, and it’s aloof like we got aloof to it.”
So it’s not absolutely bright what Williams was cerebration – or smelling – on that late July Sunday in 2016 aback he lit a cigar and absolved into his aback yard.
Williams had smelled accustomed gas in his backyard before. In May 2016 – less than three months afore the access that would take his activity – he alleged Centerpoint Activity to abode the odor of sulfur in the alleyway abaft his house.
“There were gas leaks everywhere,” Harris says.Once, he says, a bedfellow threatened to analysis out because she anticipation the aroma was sewer gas.
Crews fixed the annual band that affiliated the gas capital to the beat abaft Williams’ house. But they larboard a aperture in the ground, covered with plywood, rocks, and attention tape.
An display filed in the Williams family’s accusation adjoin Centerpoint Activity shows crews covered up a gas band adjustment with plywood and chunks of asphalt.
Exhibit absorbed to complaint in Williams v. Centerpoint Energy
It remained that way for weeks.
It’s cryptic aback the gas capital started to leak, but Centerpoint’s own federal adventure abode to PHMSA abhorrent “improper backfill” of the hole.
Williams went alfresco at about 4 p.m. on July 31, 2016.
As Williams’ wife went aback into their house to grab a canteen of wine, his cigar afire a aerial fireball.
Michelle Williams heard the access and alleged 911.
“My husband’s on fire!” she shouted into her phone. “Something aloof blew up!”
“What’s on fire?” the 911 abettor said.
“My husband! He’s rolling in the grass! Something blew up!”
“What was he alive on?”
“It was adulterated gas! He went to go aroma it and article blew up!” she shouted. “I asked him to aroma it and he absolved out and it blew up!
“Please, he’s rolling on the ground! … Now he’s accepting in the pool! Something blew up!”
She afraid up to run alfresco with towels to extinguish the flames. She alleged 911 afresh after a accumulator afford absolute gasoline for a lawnmower exploded.
“Oh my God, it’s on fire! The accomplished accumulator allowance is on fire! He told me not to get near! It’s accepting bad! It’s on blaze bad! Please!”
By the time Williams fabricated it to his backyard pond pool, he had suffered burns over 63 percent of his body.
Still, he was conscious aback advice arrived. He told a firefighter that he had angry a bend and “it exploded.”
Firefighters alleged the gas company. Workers found a gas capital aperture so large that it was visibly alarming clay up through cracks in the pavement.
Harris and at atomic nine others told board they had frequently smelled accustomed gas, beginning a year before and peaking in the canicule afore the explosion.
One acquaintance said she smelled a “weird smell” but couldn’t acquaint what it was. Others said they couldn’t define the antecedent of the leak.
The accessory abaft the home of Richard Williams. Williams died afterwards accepting astringent burns aback blockage a gas aperture in his aback backyard with a lit cigar in 2016.
Henrietta Wildsmith, The Shreveport Times via USA TODAY Network
Pure accustomed gas is achromatic and odorless. Some gas artlessly contains a baby bulk of mercaptan, the chemical that gives gas its characteristic rotten egg smell. Utilities are appropriate to add more mercaptan so bodies can acquaint aback it’s leaking.
Williams was taken to the accelerated affliction bake assemblage at University Health Shreveport, where he underwent at atomic 63 medical procedures afore his death, his ancestors says in a accusation adjoin Centerpoint and the Burghal of Shreveport.
Williams eventually fell into a coma. Eighty-one canicule afterwards the explosion, he died.
He was never able to accord a abounding annual of what happened.
His brother, John Williams, is a accomplice in a Shreveport law close that specializes in oil and gas law and litigation. The close is apery the Williams ancestors in the lawsuit.
The lawyers allege that Centerpoint and the burghal were behindhand in advancement the gas pipes. They argued in a cloister filing aftermost ages that the annual should pay castigating damages.
“Centerpoint attempts to anatomy Dr. Williams’ afterlife as some array of ancient aberration occurrence,” they wrote. “However, the affirmation is cutting that Dr. Williams’ afterlife was the absolute aftereffect of a systemic abortion on the allotment of Centerpoint acquired by acquainted decisions fabricated by Centerpoint’s admiral and admiral in Texas.”
“The systemic abortion at issue,” they wrote, “is Centerpoint’s best not to aish alarming casting adamant pipes from its system, alike admitting Centerpoint knew aloof how baleful they were.”
Centerpoint’s lawyer, Bruce Parkerson, told USA TODAY in a account that Centerpoint “continues to extend its condolences to the Williams family” and that the aggregation “accepts its albatross in operating a safe and reliable system.”
But in reports and cloister papers, the aggregation says Williams himself is partly to blame. The annual additionally blames the burghal of Shreveport, which maintains the alleyway abaft Williams’ house.
Shreveport City Attorney William Bradford says he doesn’t animadversion on awaiting litigation, but “we do anticipate it’s a defensible claim on account of the city.”
The Williams’ case illustrates a claiming airish by overlapping accompaniment and federal regulations.
Pipeline regulations are activated by the Louisiana Department of Accustomed Assets through an acceding with the federal government.
That agency cited Centerpoint last year for four violations, including declining to accumulate operation and emergency affairs up to date and conduct inspections to achieve abiding the appropriate bulk of odor in the gas.
The best amends was $10,000 per day for anniversary citation. The accompaniment offered to achieve for a ancient accomplished of $2,500 if Centerpoint anchored the problems – which both abandon say the annual did.
The accompaniment has not cited Centerpoint for violations in the Williams case.
The Louisiana Accompaniment Police filed bent accuse adjoin Centerpoint for declining to abode the gas aperture to the state, but those accuse were dismissed.
Youth who had been watching Elvis Presley’s “Stay Away, Joe” at the Accompaniment Theatre abscond the arena if a accustomed gas blaze in burghal Richmond, Ind. on April 6, 1968, which dead 41 people.
Courtesy Ralph Pyle for the Richmond Palladium-Item
President Lyndon Johnson had already been prodding Congress to canyon activity assurance legislation aback a accustomed gas blaze afire armament at a gun abundance in Richmond, Indiana, killing 41 bodies in 1968.
That year, Johnson active the Accustomed Gas Activity Assurance Act, which set up a federal-state partnership: The Activity and Hazardous Materials Assurance Administration, a new agency in the U.S. Department of Transportation, would establish national standards for gas utilities, but accompaniment regulators would be amenable for administering those regulations.
That accommodation continues to this day.
Cynthia Quarterman served bristles years as the top activity assurance official in the Obama administration, the longest administration in the agency’s history.
“Let me put it this way: If you were to actualize a arrangement from blemish today, I don’t anticipate you would actualize it the way it currently exists,” she says.
“The PHMSA is not big abundant to awning all those bounded and accompaniment programs,” Quarterman says. “There aloof aren’t abundant bodies to do it.”
The current federal pipeline assurance administrator, Howard “Skip” Elliott, beneath to be interviewed.
The federal government awards grants for activity assurance programs to regulators in the 48 states that participate, allotment on boilerplate 68 percent of such programs. (Alaska and Hawaii do not conduct accustomed gas annual inspections. They leave activity assurance to federal inspectors.)
“It’s absolutely under-supervised,” said McDonald, the Boston-based consultant.
He formed as a aperture ambassador for the Boston Gas Co. for 25 years. He now serves as an able attestant in lawsuits over accustomed gas explosions.
“I’ve never apparent a PHMSA investigator in my absolute career,” he says. “I’ve never apparent a abruptness appointment from any regulator – federal or accompaniment – in my absolute career. So that’s a problem.”
The bureau appropriate every annual to develop a plan to alter old pipelines and achieve added assurance improvements beginning in 2010.
But the agency doesn’t audit those documents, accepted as administering candor administration plans, or DIMPs, and accompaniment blank varies.
In abounding states, utilities don’t accept to abide the affairs for approval. In others, accompaniment officials refused requests by the USA TODAY Network for copies.
The Missouri Accessible Annual Commission voted 4-0 in September to abjure a appeal to absolution the affairs for Spire Energy, after the aggregation cited “system assurance and security” concerns.
In Louisiana, as in abounding states, regulators attending at the affairs but do not accumulate copies. That protects the abstracts from disclosure beneath abandon of advice laws, allowing utilities to keep their contents a carefully attentive secret.
The result, critics say, is a burst oversight system with little accuracy and no one acutely in charge.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., speaks during a account appointment on Admiral Donald Trump’s Clean Activity Plan backup on Capitol Hill August 21, 2018.
Zach Gibson, Getty Images
Markey, who sits on the Senate board that oversees gas activity regulations, says that needs to change.
“What industries attack to achieve is to actualize a authoritative atramentous aperture breadth neither federal nor accompaniment regulators accept bright authoritative responsibility. And that is in ample allotment what his accident here,” he says. “Going advanced afterwards this incident, we aloof can’t let activity companies adapt themselves.”
New Jersey has added than 70,000 afar of gas pipelines – about bifold the length of all accessible anchorage in the state. Its better utility, Accessible Annual Electric & Gas, has added casting adamant pipleline than any annual in the country.
PSE&G said it chock-full application the leak-prone casting adamant pipes in the 1960s and has replaced about 42 percent of them since then, abbreviation the number of leaks to about 8,000 per year – beneath than one aperture for every 4 afar of pipeline.
Lynda Farrell says that’s not good enough.
She active the Activity Assurance Coalition, an advancement accumulation based in burghal Philadelphia.
“Nationally we’re in appealing accursed bad shape, not alone aback it comes to the bendability of regulations but additionally in accepting the bare admiral to regulate,” she says. “The acumen for the absence of that adjustment is artlessly that the industry has consistently accounting the assurance regulations.”
Indeed, the industry has lobbied adjoin added regulations. Industry admiral say the best way to advancement their systems is to accord bounded utilities the adaptability to abode their own different problems.
When Admiral Donald Trump active an controlling adjustment aftermost year agreeable industry groups to adduce regulations to be eliminated, the accustomed gas industry asked that analysis schedules be absolute not by federal regulations, but by the industry’s own risk-based rankings of their accomplished priorities.
Nisource, the ancestor aggregation of Columbia Gas, said the government generally issues “well intentioned” regulations that might resolve lower-risk assurance issues but alter assets abroad from replacing what it sees as its accomplished priority: replacing casting adamant pipe.
“Each operating arrangement is unique,” Nisource lawyers Kimberly Cuccia and Joseph Clark wrote to the Department of Transportation. “Operators charge accept the adaptability to focus their assets on their accomplished risks, which ultimately ensures the best amount in agreement of bulk and assurance for all barter and the accepted public.”
Traffic flows accomplished one of abounding signs opposing a new Duke Activity activity in burghal Cincinnati.
Patrick Reddy, The Cincinnati Enquirer
Elizabeth Rueve-Miller is the co-founder of NOPE – Neighbors Opposing Activity Extension. The group is protesting affairs for a new high-pressure administering activity through Cincinnati and its suburbs.
She was cat-and-mouse for her about-face to allege at a burghal burghal board affair in September aback a flurry of argument letters alerted her to the Massachusetts explosions.
“A abortion involving article like that would be devastating,” Rueve-Miller says.
“I’m not adjoin accustomed gas. I’m adjoin capricious infrastructure. We’re anxious about people’s safety.”
It’s a classic not-in-my-backyard dilemma.
Duke Energy says it needs the new activity to accumulate up with growing appeal for energy, and to alter abate curve congenital in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
But the adopted routes for the band run through as abounding as a dozen communities and neighborhoods.
“We looked at actually bags aloft bags of options,” Duke backer Sally Thelen says. “We are actual assured in our assurance record.”
Jimmy Harris, a acquaintance of Richard Williams. Williams died afterwards accepting astringent burns aback blockage a gas aperture in his aback backyard with a lit cigar in 2016. “I wasn’t that anxious because I acquainted like if it was a big above assurance affair that the gas aggregation would accept taken affliction of it,” said Harris.
Henrietta Wildsmith, The Shreveport Times via USA TOD
Harris, the Shreveport bed-and-breakfast owner, said he aloof has to assurance his gas aggregation to accomplish a safe arrangement admitting what happened aing aperture two years ago.
“I apperceive gas is dangerous, but I aloof don’t attending at it as our albatross to fix it,” he said. “I still in my apperception accept that basically the companies are attractive out for our safeties and to me that was an abandoned incident.
“I assumption I should be added active about things like that.”
Gregory Korte appear from McLean, Virginia. Nick Wooten appear from Shreveport. Contributing: John Wisely in Detroit; James Nash in Trenton, New Jersey; Dan Horn in Cincinnati; Thomas Zambito in Wester, New York; and John Kelly in Melbourne, Florida
Copyright 2017 USATODAY.com
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