PART 2: Fatal explosion reveals underground danger

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by TERRI GRUCA / KVUE News and photojournalist ROBERT MCMURREY and producer SANDRA BARRY

Bio | Email | Follow: @TerriG_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on June 28, 2012 at 9:29 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 31 at 10:54 AM

Click here to see Part 1 of this KVUE Defenders investigation.

Part 2:

As a parent you'll do anything to protect your children. It's difficult to know what to do when the place they should feel safest fills you with worry.

Six months ago, Richard May watched as Renald Ferrovecchio's home exploded and burned to the ground.

"The house was right there,” he said pointing to the tree line in his backyard. “I could see the flames. It doesn't make me sleep well at night, especially having my family here."

Since then, May has been filled with questions.

"What is going to be done?” questioned May. “What is going to be done to ensure the safety of my little girl, my family?"

Texas Gas Service was Ferrovecchio's natural gas provider. The company blames the drought -- a gas main crack caused by dry conditions followed by a heavy rain. The pipe was cast iron installed in the 1950s.

"It's a very dangerous product," said Don Deaver. Deaver worked for Exxon for 33 years investigating the company's pipeline failures and now testifies as an expert witness in gas explosion cases across the country.           

He says cast iron is brittle and shouldn't be in the ground. In fact, he said gas companies haven't built new lines with cast iron since the ‘80s and many homeowners who have it don't know.

"They don't do anything to inform the developers, the residents, the businesses or any of those people that you can be in harm's way," Deaver said.

In 1973, an aging cast iron pipeline belonging to Southern Union Gas Company ruptured in El Paso.  Seven people died and eight others were injured when their apartment complex exploded.

In February 2011, five people died in Pennsylvania in a similar explosion. Investigators there blame the blast on a 1928 cast iron pipe run by UGI Utilities.

"With cast iron you have a history of problems where you get a catastrophic break of the cast iron itself. Oftentimes it will totally break in half,” said Deaver.

Deaver said our weather is another big concern.

"If you live in Austin or areas of Central Texas with the soil conditions there, then you've got a major safety hazard in your front yard," said Deaver.

Here's the problem. Deaver said the cast iron pipe that is in the ground is old and brittle, making it prone to leaks. Dry weather allows the gas to escape through the earth above, but a heavy rain can close those cracks, and Deaver said the gas travels the path of least resistance -- laterally toward homes and businesses. It can collect underneath a structure and then something as simple as flipping a light switch or placing a cell phone call can ignite the fumes.

"So that really causes a new, big problem from San Antonio, to Austin, all the way to Dallas,”  said Deaver.

No government agency at the federal or state level would say where all the cast iron pipe is located. Texas Gas wouldn’t tell KVUE either, calling it "security sensitive information." But the company said it has 32 miles of cast iron pipeline in the ground in the Austin area.

The Texas Railroad Commission said there are 966 miles of cast iron pipe across the state.           

"The only thing to do that really makes sense is to take them out of the ground, replace them and put a better material, a safer material in the gas pipeline," said Deaver.

Texas Gas did reinforce the cast iron pipe along Payne Avenue following the explosion, sliding new polyethlyene pipe inside the existing cast iron. It also re-inspected the remaining 32 miles of cast iron pipes and says they are safe.

The company would not say whether it has a plan to replace cast iron.

The federal government first warned gas companies to accelerate the repairs and replacement of all high risk pipelines in 1991.

"The regulatory agencies and the rules have allowed gas pipeline companies or gas distribution companies to live with and experience and have in their systems, hundreds, even thousands of leaks without having to repair them,” said Deaver.

Deaver said gas providers' own reports to the federal government are evidence of a problem with leaks. For example, federal records show from 2003 to 2011 Texas Gas lost an average 1.78 percent of its total gas.

"Oftentimes the pipeline companies have been allowed to more or less put blinders on, and if they find a problem, they only think in terms of, 'This is a localized problem and not a general problem,’" said Deaver. “They don't want anything to be systematic or broad-based because the more they think like that, the more money they have to spend, the more action they have to take."

The pain on Payne Avenue is still present six months later.

"I've driven by that house twice a day -- on my way to work and on my way back home. It's a constant reminder with the flowers and the remembrances,” said neighbor Richard May.

After the explosion, May said the Texas Railroad Commission told him he had cast iron pipes outside his home. This week, the agency emailed him to tell him those pipes are actually steel.

"Can we trust the Texas Gas Service and the Railroad Commission’s regulations? Because all my life I've always trusted them, and I would still trust them, except our neighbor is dead," said May.

The Texas Railroad Commission issued new rules in March. Those rules require all gas companies to not only inspect their gas pipelines but to set a schedule to replace high risk pipes.

As for the explosion on Payne Avenue, the Railroad Commission tells KVUE the state investigation is ongoing. As soon as we get that report, we will pass it along to you.

Click here to see Part 1 of this KVUE Defenders investigation.

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