Atmos Story About Not Revealing Bad Pipes Sure Sounds Bogus

When old steel gas mains rust and spring leaks, gas gets out or water gets in. Neither one is good.
When old steel gas mains rust and spring leaks, gas gets out or water gets in. Neither one is good. imagepixel
Atmos Energy has shut off gas to 2,800 homes in Northwest Dallas because of gas leaks, explosions and fires; a child is dead; thousands of people remain shut out of their homes; the company acknowledges that aging steel gas pipes in shifting soil are the problem; and yet Atmos tells us it can’t reveal where all the leaky pipes in the rest of the city may be because of “national security concerns.”

Interesting. Two years ago Massachusetts passed a law requiring gas companies there to pony up information on leaky pipes. And they did. And even though I know I’ll get some argument here, I would maintain that Massachusetts is in the same nation we are.

While we’re waiting for Texas to pass a similar law, let’s see if we can just sort of guess where the worst gas leak problems might be. I’ll give you two guesses, but I’m going to guess the first one for you: not where rich white people live. Now you guess.

“Jim - We have received your email. Currently, Atmos Energy is focused on restoring service in northwest Dallas and taking care of our customers." – Atmos Energy

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In 2015, the Environmental Defense Fund drove around several major American cities in automobiles equipped with special gas-leak sniffing equipment and published maps to show where the most leaks were. In looking at their map of Dallas, below, you should be aware that EDF did not drive through all of Dallas. I don’t know how this will show up on your device, but the EDF map should show blue areas. That’s where they drove.

The comparison to look for is between the Park Cities area, which has some leaks, and the old South Dallas area, meaning Fair Park and environs, which has so many leaks you can barely see the blue. Now, you and I, we are not knocked over and blown away by this map because guess why? It looks like all of the new data-mapping we have seen in the last year depicting racial segregation, poverty and unemployment in the city.

Just for reference, I am also providing you with a map depicting transportation inequities in the city, done by Shima Hamadi at the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington. You will see a big orange-tan area southeast of downtown for households below the poverty level. That zone coincides pretty neatly with the EDF map showing households with the most threat from gas leaks.
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The Environmental Defense Fund in 2015 drove a specially equipped vehicle throuh certain parts of Dallas looking for gas leaks.
Enviromental Defense Fund
Orange areas are concentrations of poverty.
Institute of Urban Studies, University of Texas at Arlington
What am I saying? Am I saying that Atmos Energy wants to blow up black and Hispanic people? Of course not. I think you and I can look at these maps and pretty quickly put our fingers on the issue. This is all about squeaky wheels.

Sadly in our society the map of squeaky wheels tends to coincide with the map of white people. I guess we could say some squeaks get heard before other squeaks. I feel a certain personal guilt there.

As Thanksgiving of 2016 approached and with it a major family gathering at our home, our hot water heater started turning off. We couldn’t relight it and keep it going. Then the gas furnace. Finally the stove.

In my dealings with Atmos, both on the phone and in person when Atmos personnel came to the house, I was given a scripted-sounding consistent answer to the effect that I had water in my gas line — the line from the Atmos meter at the alley through the backyard to my house — and that it was my responsibility to have the line replaced.

I assumed they were right, because what do I now about water in gas lines? I say their answers were scripted, because, whether it was the nice young person on the phone or the guy in an orange vest in my backyard, the explanation always included the same details about pressure in the main gas line in the alley and the impossibility of water traveling through the meter into my house line. So it had to be my fault.

But then I saw Atmos vehicles visiting other houses on my block. Turned out my neighbors’ hot water heaters were shutting off; their furnaces were dying; and somebody even had water coming out of the burners on her stove, but only on our side of the street.

Atmos told me to call a plumber, so I did. A couple of them. The first one sold me a hot water heater that wouldn’t stay lit, then stopped taking my calls. I asked the crew at Lakewood Hardware for the name of an honest smart plumber. When I called that guy, he asked me a million questions about everything that had happened on my block, then said he’d have to think about it.

Let’s just see the map of the pipes, right now. Then we talk.

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He called me back four times that afternoon, asked more questions and said he’d have to think about it. That evening he called me and said he’d thought about it. He wouldn’t come. He said he couldn’t do anything for me. But he had figured it out.

It wasn’t my plumbing, he said. Couldn’t be. He said we had to have old, leaky, steel pipes with low gas pressure in our alley, and the pipes had to be suffering major water incursions — water entering the pipe from the surrounding soil. Atmos can’t push enough gas into the pipe to keep the water out, he said, because the gas will leak too much, so the water comes into the pipe.

He said the water must be pooling in a low area, causing big bubbles or blips in the gas pressure. The higher gas pressure was forcing the water into our plumbing.

He dictated to me a list of two or three specific statements I was to make in writing to Atmos. I did it. As soon as my questions were received, Atmos folded immediately.

For the next several weeks there was a traffic jam in our alley of big Atmos vehicles, digging, laying plastic pipe, melting the pipe together at the seams with all kinds of space-age-looking equipment, installing new meters at every house. They were great.

The Atmos people were unfailingly courteous and professional. I went out there just to watch them work. It was that interesting, but it had to be a million dollars. Maybe more. Multiple crews worked from dawn until long after dusk some days.

As I watched them work, I thought to myself, “No kidding. Of course I got a script from them. Of course they wanted to stall this. If they had to do this amount of work immediately on every block in the city that has old steel pipes, who knows if they could even stay in business?”

That probably is why, in 2015 when the Texas Railroad Commission considered a measure to require gas utilities to replace all old steel pipes, the utilities lobbied heavily against it. The utilities succeeded, of course, because when has a utility ever not succeeded in wrapping the Texas Railroad Commission around its pinky? The utilities persuaded the commission to issue a rule instead requiring them to give the pipe replacement program their very best college try.

And I would assume they are doing just that. They don’t want to blow up children any more than you or I do. They’ve had multiple crews out working day and night for weeks in the area of Northwest Dallas where the child was killed and people evacuated from their homes.

In the meantime, their argument for refusing to identify problem areas because of national security concerns is absurd. Even if they can’t provide a map of their grid system, they could still broadly identify areas where the pipes are old.

I asked Atmos yesterday to cite for me the specific provision of law or federal administrative rules that precludes the company from identifying neighborhoods that have old steel pipes. Atmos answered: “Jim - We have received your email. Currently, Atmos Energy is focused on restoring service in northwest Dallas and taking care of our customers.

“We are providing daily updates and will attempt to include an answer to your question in that update. We are keeping track of all inquiries.”

Sure, but you people must get this same question every day all day long. If there’s an actual law stopping you from answering, it would seem like you might have that law right there on your desk by now, maybe even on the tip of your tongue. Otherwise your answer sounds a little … shall we say, scripted.

If I have old steel pipes in my alley and I find out about it, I might want to have Atmos cut me off at the meter so I can go all-electric. As a big utility, Atmos has got to run some kind of risk-assessment algorithm for how many house explosions it can afford. But I might look at my family and decide my number is zero.

And what about the larger social and political considerations I started with here? The profile presented in that Environmental Defense Fund map of gas leaks in Dallas sure looked familiar. If we ever do get a good look at the map of the old dangerous gas pipes and if that map mimics a century of environmental racism in this city, then, yes, there will be serious political repercussions, because there should be.

All of these factors have to be considered against a backdrop of business reality. Natural gas is an explosive substance, but the rate nationally of deaths by residential gas explosion is minuscule. If we place financial burdens on the utilities that are too onerous, investors will bail on the industry, and no one will be around to fix anything.

But think about it. What could be worse for our security than secrecy and carefully scripted subterfuge regarding something that is in our homes already and has the power, whether it ever happens or not, to obliterate us? Let’s just see the map of the pipes, right now. Then we talk.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze