This makes four times. Four times in the course of one week I have sent the same set of questions to the Atmos Energy public relations staff. First time, they messaged me back that they were busy. Next three times, radio silence.
I just find that remarkable. This is a company that had to put 2,800 families out of their homes in Northwest Dallas after a child was killed three weeks ago in a house explosion believed to be related to a rash of leaky Atmos Energy natural gas pipes in the neighborhood.
This same company has been under orders from the state for seven years to replace those leaky gas pipes. This same company has refused to reveal the location of its remaining obsolete, leaky, steel gas-pipe grid in the city, citing unspecified “national security concerns,” even though other states have ordered gas utilities to reveal the locations of obsolete pipes and even though the Texas regulatory agency with authority over this company has already revealed that the area of the home evacuations in Dallas is served by old Atmos pipes.
Atmos cannot answer questions about where its bad steel pipes are without putting the nation at risk, but the Texas Railroad Commission, which is the state regulatory agency over Atmos, can reveal where they are? So is Atmos itself bad for national security, or is it just what Atmos says that’s bad? Maybe there’s a rule somewhere in national security: “Whatever else happens, do NOT let Atmos say anything.”
The nut of my original question to the company was simple. Show me the law. Tell me what says you can’t release the location of remaining steel pipes in the city. Who says? Where? What are the words?
And the point is not that the company won’t answer questions coming from me personally. The point is that it doesn't think it has to answer anybody’s questions.
Atmos refers all questions about its leaky pipe system to the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that regulates hazardous substances. And, indeed, the NTSB is investigating the explosion and fires in Dallas. But how does that mean the NTSB now must speak for Atmos on all matters?
So I call the NTSB anyway because, you know, it’s the job. I have to. I feel stupid. I ask about Atmos’s pipes. There’s a long silence.
Eric Weiss, a spokesperson, tells me that the NTSB would be happy to answer questions about its own investigation, but, as he puts it, “Things that they [Atmos] could have answered the day before [the explosion] they could [still] answer.”
He explains, “If it [the explosion] didn’t happen and you happened to call them and said, ‘What’s your grid like?’ — details of the operation not directly related to the investigation — they can answer.”
No kidding. Some days, being a reporter puts you in the position of having to ask people stupid questions. And they always think you’re stupid. And you wonder, yourself.
But wait. Let’s agree there are always at least two sides to a story. Let’s also agree that the full underlying explanation of the catastrophe in Northwest Dallas may turn out to be complex when it’s all said and done. Let’s even agree that Atmos has a right and a fiduciary duty to pursue and protect its interests.
I still say the way they’re handling this makes them sound guilty. They sound shifty to me. It’s just my opinion, but I think they sound arrogant and dismissive of the life-and-death concerns of their own ratepayers. They couldn’t sound worse, it seems to me, if they answered every question by saying, “You got nuttin’ on us.”
Citing those “national security” laws that it refuses to identify, Atmos won’t say where the bad steel pipes are in the rest of the city. It won’t even give us a broad impression how big a public safety problem may be posed by worn-out, obsolete and leaky pipes.
OK, allow me to speak here in an entirely theoretical vein, hypothetically and only as my own guesswork and opinion. In that vein, allow me to suggest other possible reasons why Atmos might not want to let us know where the rest of its bad pipes are in the city:
• Because then they’d have to replace them.
• Because their real plan is to save money by going as slowly as possible with a replacement program.
• Because their real plan is to replace pipes first in rich, obnoxious areas where people can make the most trouble for them, putting off for as long as possible the pipe replacements in places where poor and powerless people live.
• Because they’re in Scotland playing golf.
• Because the one death and thousands of evacuations in Northwest Dallas are actually way less bad than what their risk assessment consultant told them to plan for.
• Because they’re hoods.
Please understand, I am not saying that they are hoods. I’m just saying they sound sort of hoody. And that’s on them. They’re the ones who have chosen to adopt a public posture that reminds me of a guy in a Godfather movie taking the Fifth. You and I are left to ponder what that may mean.
There is also this factor to consider: Only once a year does Atmos Energy really have to talk to anybody. When they come before the City Council every year to ask for millions of dollars in rate hikes, then on that occasion they have to use their church manners. The City Council rarely challenges them anyway and usually gives them most of what they want, but at least the Atmos people have to speak up and say please and thank you when they ask for millions of dollars.
The rest of the year, even when a child is dead and thousands of families have been forced from their homes, they can pretty well give us the middle finger. And, as we see, that’s what they do.
So here is my little thought. Even before Atmos files for its next rate hike, like maybe right about now, why doesn’t the City Council get busy on a list of questions? I hope, if the council does take action, one of the questions it asks will be the one I’ve been asking Atmos about the federal law behind which the company so conveniently hides.
First, let’s button that one down. Let’s see exactly what the law does and does not allow Atmos to tell us about its distribution system. Then as soon as we have those answers in hand, let’s see what kind of a work-around we can do to deal with whatever legitimate legal impediments to transparency may exist.
Couldn’t Atmos still give us a broad geographic summary of where pipes have and have not been replaced? Even if the security concern is in some degree legitimate, surely there can be no absolute and total shield from all public scrutiny.
Surely Atmos could give us some very general impressions about where most of the replacements have been carried out so far, even if it can’t give us a precise grid-map. We really do need to know. It really is a question of life and death. The choosing and prioritizing of neighborhoods for this work is an extremely consequential social and political issue. Our elected officials need to have eyes on these decisions.
I know the mantra of the business elite in recent decades has been deregulation, but here is an instance where a public utility is still inescapably public, no matter how much the lobbyists and the politicians may fiddle with the money. Gas is still gas. It is a dangerous explosive. There is a baked-in element of monopoly because only one entity can run the distribution system. The public has a vital interest in knowing that safety measures are in place and are being distributed evenly and fairly.
The next time Atmos comes around with a barely polite, forced smile asking for millions more dollars from the ratepayers, the City Council needs to hold the company’s feet to the fire on these basic questions of public safety. And if we can somehow get the answers we need, we need to remember that we might not like them.
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I wrote last week about witnessing a major Atmos pipe replacement project in the alley behind my house. The Atmos employees who carried out that project, by the way, were unfailingly polite and efficient. Too bad their upper management isn’t as competent as its own employees.
But the operation behind my house also looked extremely expensive. If we ratepayers insist on a more aggressive citywide campaign of infrastructure replacement, what we have asked for may wind up costing us a bundle in gas rates.
I know the old trope about being careful what you ask for. But every time I see that photo again of 12-year-old Michellita Rogers, the little girl who died in the explosion in Northwest Dallas, I believe we would insist on the necessary repairs no matter the cost.
Our problem is that you and I can’t ask Atmos anything. Well, we can, but Atmos won’t answer us. The one occasion when it might speak up is during the annual rate-setting hearing at City Hall. You and I are dependent on our City Council to use that occasion to get us the answers we need. We need to let our elected council members know that we want those answers and we expect the council to get them for us.