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Defenders Investigation: Dangerous gas pipes

An Austin father died in 2012 when his home exploded following a gas leak. Two years later, those same gas pipes remain across the country.

AUSTIN, Texas — Jan. 9, 2012, is a day few people in Austin can forget. 

That morning, an Austin father died in his home when a gas leak sparked an explosion. Since then, the KVUE Defenders uncovered the same type of aging cast iron pipe leading to his home sits underground across Austin and around the rest of the country. 

Federal agencies have recommended cast iron and bare steel gas pipes be replaced for decades. The latest Defenders investigation revealed that while that aging infrastructure is being removed across Austin, 85,000 miles of aging pipes remain across the country.

On Jan. 9, 2012, 43-year-old Renald Ferrovecchio was killed when his North Austin home burst into flames.

It happened just before 8:30 that Monday morning at 1712 Payne Avenue. Fire investigators ruled an accidental natural gas leak as the cause of the explosion.

At the time of Ferrovecchio's death, he had an 8-year-old son. He had only been living in his home for about a year.

Texas Gas Service released a statement after the explosion, saying in part:

This morning, Texas Gas Service responded to fires at two residences on Payne Avenue, in which there was a fatality and an injury. Our thoughts and prayers are with those individuals and families affected by this event. We continue to investigate the incident, with the cooperation of authorities, with a primary focus on the safety and well-being of the community and our customers.

Ferrovecchio first called Texas Gas Service on Nov. 25, 2011 to report the smell of gas. Neighbors said the gas company came out and looked around, but the gas service could not find a leak and promised to investigate further.

Kristi Copeland, known as "The Fix It Chick," was remodeling Ferrovecchio's house at the time. She said Texas Gas Service returned to the home on Dec. 29.

"In my mind, I'm sure in everyone's minds, and I'm sure in Renald's mind, it was, 'Oh well, the gas company, they're experts. They know whether it's safe or not. If they've come out and they've investigated and they didn't evacuate the neighborhood, they didn't turn off the gas to the house, it must be safe to be here.' Apparently not," she said.

Copeland said workers dug a whole in the front yard when they returned in December, but they still did not find a leak. She said they left the hole open and promised to return.

"That whole next week, including weekends, I was there every single day," Copeland said. "Nobody showed up from the gas company."

Eleven days after the workers dug the hole, Ferrovecchio's home exploded. When Copeland arrived, firefighters were blocking the street.

"That's when they explained to me that the house had blown up and there was someone inside, and did I know who that was? That's when it was all slow motion, unreal," Copeland said.

The day after Ferrovecchio's home exploded, crews began digging.

Texas Gas Service crews worked to find the source of the gas leak that sparked the deadly blast. Fifteen homes remained evacuated as heavy equipment filled the area, and crews started digging in the yard of Ferrovecchio's charred home.

"I was having breakfast, and all of a sudden, I just heard this boom, and then I heard a second boom," said neighbor Abigail Mahnkey. "My husband [and I] have a house guest, and everybody, we all heard it. We were like, 'Whoa, what is that?'"

Texas Gas Service later said it enforced the gas main along Payne Avenue, sliding new polyethlyene inside the existing cast iron.

Firefighters said a gas leak could have easily ignited with the flip of a light switch or a cell phone call. Once it lit, they had to let it burn out on its own.

Two months after the explosion, Ferrovecchio's family filed a lawsuit against the Texas Gas Service and Oneok Inc., which owned the gas company at the time.

Richard Mithoff, the attorney representing the Ferrovecchio family, said there were two reasons the lawsuit was filed: To make sure Ferrovecchio's son was taken care of, and to get answers as to exactly what happened.

"Everything we have seen at this point indicates to us that, yes, this death could have been prevented, if adequate precautions had been taken," said Mithoff.

The attorney said too many questions were left unanswered.

Texas Gas Service declined KVUE's requests for an interview because of the pending lawsuit, but in February 2012, the company issued a report on the explosion.

The report said the cause of the explosion was not the initial leak that Ferrovecchio reported in November, but a separate "break in the 4-inch 1950s cast iron gas main" that happened just before the explosion. The report goes on to say the "cause of the break was . . . shifting soil due to severe drought conditions followed by rainfall."

Mithoff questioned why there was a delay between the time of first notification and the first efforts to remove the pipe.

"What caused that shift in time?" asked Mithoff. "Why did it occur at this particular house, where there had been a prior report of a leak?"

Mithoff also wondered what precautions, if any, were taken by Texas Gas Service during its excavation work prior to the explosion.

"Should Mr. Ferrovecchio and other residents have been warned?" asked Mithoff.

"I do not know what might happen next," said Ethel Spier, who lived two doors down from Ferrovecchio's home. She lived on Payne Avenue for about 50 years and said she's not convinced the leak has been properly repaired.

"I am still leery," said Spier. "Every little noise I hear, I jump and look, and that's not right. I did not used to have to do that."

Neighbor Richard May also worried about the safety of staying in the neighborhood after the explosion.

"What is going to be done? What is going to be done to ensure the safety of my little girl, my family?" May asked. "It doesn't make me sleep well at night, especially having my family here."

After the explosion, May said the Texas Railroad Commission told him he had cast iron pipes outside his home. The week of June 28, 2012, the agency emailed him to tell him the pipes were actually made of 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."

The cast iron pipe at Ferrovecchio's house was installed in the 1950s.

According to Don Deaver, who worked at Exxon for 33 years investigating the company's pipeline failures, cast iron is brittle and shouldn't be in the ground.

"With cast iron, you have a history of problems where you get a catastrophic break of the cast iron itself. Often times, it will totally break in half," he said. "It's a very dangerous product."

Deaver said cast iron is especially dangerous in areas prone to drought. In fact, he said, gas companies haven't used it for new lines since the 1980s, 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. "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."

Deaver said the cast iron pipe is old and brittle, making it prone to leaks. Dry weather, like the weather in Central Texas, allows the gas to escape through the earth above. 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 flames.

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.

RELATED: NTSB pipeline accident reports

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

In March 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation re-issued a nationwide alert to all gas companies to accelerate repair or replacement of all high-risk pipelines. The original alert was issued in 1991 -- 21 years before Ferrovecchio's home exploded.

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

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 Service lost an average 1.78 percent of its total gas.

"Often times, 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 Defenders learned as of June 28, 2012, Texas Gas Service still had up to 32 miles of cast iron pipe in its system around Austin. The company re-inspected the lines following the explosion and said they are safe, but wouldn't say where they are.

During that same time, the Texas Railroad Commission said there were 966 miles of cast iron pipe across the state.

The Texas Railroad Commission issued new rules in March 2012 requiring all gas companies to not only inspect their gas pipelines, but to set a schedule to replace high-risk pipes.

The explosion that killed Ferrovecchio at his home happened six weeks after he first reported smelling gas to Texas Gas Service.

After an investigation, the state cited the company for three violations in July 2012. The state discovered the initial leak Ferrovecchio reported was later downgraded by a Texas Gas Service personnel not present at the site. The report also found that the leak was rescheduled for repair, but was not monitored to ensure it remained non-hazardous.

More than a month after the state found the violations, the Texas Gas Service issued its response. It argued the onsite technician did make the final call and claimed the technician was making a judgment on the side of safety until he could check with a supervisor before downgrading it.

Ferrovecchio's neighbor, Jack Graves, didn't think the company's response was adequate.

"It's still a little bit confusing to me, how they can respond like that," Graves said. "I don't know how you can grade that anything, but come out and fix it."

The state also found the company did not immediately test the underground pipe after the explosion to determine what went wrong.

In August 2012, the company turned the cast iron pipe over to a lab for testing. It claims the pipe constituted a piece of evidence that needs to be preserved before tests destroyed its integrity.

"All of this makes me a little bit nervous," said Graves, whose home was heavily damaged by the explosion.

Graves said Ferrovecchio's damaged home, now an empty lot, served as a reminder to the neighborhood.

"People need to see what can happen," he said.

The state also required Texas Gas Service to provide a plan of corrective action to prevent similar accidents. The company said it plans to provide more training to inspectors in particular when it involves explaining why it reclassifies pipeline gas leaks.

The Texas Railroad Commission said its pipeline safety staff will review Texas Gas Service's plan of correction and determine if it is acceptable.

Oneok, Inc. settled with Ferrovecchio's family, but the company did not say how much money the family received.

Months after the explosion, the KVUE Defenders uncovered the same type of pipe that was found at Ferrovecchio's home in many other Austin neighborhoods.

One Austin homeowner found that getting old cast iron pipe replaced isn't always easy.

"I smelled a gas leak at the top of my drive, and it was the neighbor across the street who brought it to my attention," said Stephanie Morrison.

It was February 2012, weeks after Ferrovecchio died in his home on Payne Avenue. Morrison immediately called Texas Gas Service, which came out to investigate.

"They didn't tell me a whole lot, other than they were going to repair the line and put a clamp on it," she said.

That might have been the end of it, if not for the KVUE Defenders. The Defenders found decades of problems with cast iron pipe -- the same kind that cracked outside Ferrovecchio's home in January 2012.

Morrison demanded Texas Gas Service replace the cast iron pipe in front of her house.

"It was actually [KVUE's] continued reporting on this story and educating the general public about the difference in cast iron and steel. That actually stayed in the back of my mind and prompted me to make another call to them," said Morrison. "I was afraid my house would blow up, frankly."

After three weeks of calls, Texas Gas Service finally agreed.

"That's all I've ever wanted, is for them to come out do the right thing, be responsible, solve the problem, so that I can have peace of mind at night when I go to sleep," Morrison said. "I don't want [what happened to Ferrovecchio] to happen again in Austin."

Morrison said she's an example to others to not sit back and wait.

Texas Gas Service declined KVUE's requests for an interview but did say the replacement outside Morrison's home was part of their replacement plan required by the state. The Defenders asked to see that plan, but the Texas Railroad Commission didn't have a copy of it.

In the same neighborhood where the explosion that killed Ferrovecchio occurred, homeowners woke up on a January 2013 morning to the smell of gas. They expected to see Texas Gas Service crews working, but the smell of gas worried them.

"Everybody in the neighborhood is reasonably nervous about the whole entire thing," said Steven Phenix.

KVUE found several holes throughout the Brentwood neighborhood. Old pipe was being removed, and what looked like new polyethylene pipes were going in.

When the Defenders asked Texas Gas Service about the work being done, the company said, "Currently we are completing a mainline replacement project that began late last year."

"Small and controlled releases of natural gas during the replacement process can cause a natural gas odor," the company added.

That's information Phenix and neighbor Anna Munoz said they didn't have.

"They just said, here's our contractor, and they'll be here such-and-such a date through such-and-such a date," said Phenix.

"We don't know if it is age-related, if it is shifting, what? We don't know," said Munoz.

Phenix and Munoz moved to the Brentwood neighborhood for the family atmosphere. They, like many of their neighbors, are in search of comfort. Still they wonder if their homes are safe.

"We don't want another accident like [Ferrovecchio's], definitely," said Munoz.

The Texas Railroad Commission issued new rules in March 2012, requiring all gas companies to set a schedule to replace high risk pipes, including cast iron.

KVUE asked the state for a copy of the Texas Gas Service plan, but the commission said it doesn't keep it on file.

Neither Texas Gas Service nor the Railroad Commission would tell KVUE where the rest of these high risk pipes are located or the timeline to replace them.

The KVUE Defenders discovered 32 miles of similar pipe run underground throughout the Austin area, but state agencies nor the company would disclose where those pipes are located. The Defenders uncovered where those potentially dangerous cast iron gas pipes are located and the plan to remove them.

Reported Cast Iron Leaks

"There were certain areas where you could smell gas," said David Gilden, who has lived in Pemberton Heights for more than a decade.

The historic homes in the neighborhood right off MoPac and Northwoods boast some of the highest property values in Central Austin, but their beauty can't mask homeowners concerns.

Records from Texas Gas Service obtained by the KVUE Defenders show 14 gas leaks in the neighborhood since 2009.

"We don't want any explosions over here," said Karen Orsak.

Crews are actually a welcome sight for homeowners like Orsak, because Texas Gas Service is replacing the old cast iron pipes.

For more than a year, the KVUE Defenders asked where these pipes are located. Texas Gas Service and the state refused to share the information, so the Defenders filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records on cast iron leaks in Austin the last four years.

The Defenders then mapped all 430 leaks. They reveal cast iron pipes in older neighborhoods in Central Austin from Highway 183 to Highway 71.

They also include several commercial areas. Some straddle MoPac Expressway, and nearly four dozen are east of Interstate 35, like the Upper Boggy Creek Neighborhood, which includes Larry Lane.

"Sometimes my mother smelled gas." said Eboney Joiner, a mother of a 1-year-old. "I smelled it a couple of times. [I] thought it was the stove, and it wasn't the stove."

Joiner has lived off Larry Lane her entire life. Most of the reported leaks in her neighborhood came days after the deadly Payne Avenue explosion. Texas Gas Service replaced those cast iron pipes, too.

Texas Gas Service responds

When the KVUE Defenders investigation began in January 2012, there were 32 miles of cast iron pipe in Austin. Over the next year, that number was cut in nearly half to 16.5 miles. The company told the Defenders it planned to remove the rest of the cast iron in its Austin-area system by the end of 2014.

Other cities taking action

Entex, now Centerpoint Energy, removed all of its cast iron pipes in Houston by 2005.

Washington D.C. did the same in 2004.

Atlanta is 99 percent complete with its cast iron replacement program and is expected to finish this year.

History of warnings

Gas companies have known for decades that cast iron pipes are a problem.

The National Transportation Safety Board warned gas companies about corrosion of cast-iron mains in 1973 and advised they each take necessary action.

In 1985, the NTSB took a bolder step warning gas companies of cast-iron main failures and recommended that all cast-iron mains be phased out.

Another advisory came in 1992, recommending gas companies adopt cast-iron piping replacement programs.

"It's a very dangerous product," said Don Deaver, a national expert on pipeline safety, who worked for Exxon for years and now testifies on pipeline safety cases across the country. "With cast iron, you have a history of problems where you get a catastrophic break of the cast iron itself."

That is exactly what Texas Gas Service admitted happened on Payne Avenue when Ferrovecchio died.

"You don't forget something like that," said Richard May.

May witnessed the explosion from his backyard.

"As long as I see that charred house every day, I still have the same concern," he said.

He called the KVUE Defenders' map a "wake up call" for the rest of the Austin neighborhoods where cast iron has yet to be removed.

"I would have hoped that they would have done that immediately," said May. "You better open your eyes and see that Brentwood [where Payne Avenue is located] is just the tip of the iceberg."

In Austin, construction has become a way of life. However, in some neighborhoods, that construction is progress with a purpose -- neighborhoods where Texas Gas Service crews are replacing cast iron pipes with plastic. It's a fix not required by law, but recommended by federal and state safety leaders for decades.

"It's too little, too late," said Richard May, who lives in the Brentwood neighborhood. "They should have done this 20 years ago. Some say 40 years ago."

May's neighborhood still bears the scars of the gas explosion in 2012 that left Ferrovecchio dead. May said he remembers seeing the flames from his backyard.

"That day, we'll never forget that day," May said.

The explosion did more than rattle his neighborhood.

"There's a certain trust we consumers have, that we Americans have, in the infrastructure and energy we rely on. To have your neighbor killed right there and then hear about all these potential threats. It's unsettling. It's frightening. It boggles the mind," May said.

For two years, the Defenders have reviewed thousands of records and found the federal government has been pushing gas utilities for decades to replace aging pipes with more resilient materials like plastic, though it's not required by law. Some have been replaced, but 85,000 miles of aging pipe remains in the ground across the country.

"The statistics that are available show the frequency of leaks in gas mains made of cast iron versus plastic and steel is about five or six times higher. It's substantially higher, the leakage rate," said pipeline safety expert Don Deaver. "There are hundreds, even thousands of leaks that are just as potentially severe that don't cause a fatality or injury or a house to blow up or something, that are happening all over the country."

Just last month in Dallas, a mother and her five children were injured in a home explosion. The cause: A natural gas leak. When the Defenders first started reporting on the problem, there were 32 miles of cast iron pipes in the Austin area. Since then, Texas Gas Service has increased the pace with which it removes those old pipes. The company said there are eight miles left and the remaining cast iron should be out by the end of the year.

"That's a step in the right direction," said Deaver.

The Texas Railroad Commission issued new guidelines three years ago. The agency which oversees the state's gas companies now requires them to "replace a minimum 5 percent of pipelines or facilities posing the greatest risks identified" every year, one of the most aggressive requirements in the country. At that rate it would still take 20 years for Texas Gas Service, Atmos Energy and Fort Stockton 20 years to replace the remaining 826 miles of cast iron pipes across the state.

"There should be a federal mandate," said Deaver.

The pain along the Brentwood neighborhood doesn't go away.

"It doesn't matter what you build there," May said. "Every single one of us, when we drive by, is going to remember that spot -- every day, every time, and we do."

May said seeing the pipes being replaced around Austin is comforting.

"As just a family man, I just want to raise my kid and her friends in a safe neighborhood," May said.

He just wishes his neighbor wasn't the one who had to pay the price for the progress.

Leaking gas is something to take very seriously. If you smell even a faint odor or hear a hissing noise, do the following:

  • Leave your home immediately.
  • Do not turn appliances or lights on or off and don't use the phone. That can spark an explosion.
  • Once outside, call 911 or 1-800-959-LEAK.
  • Do not return home until someone certified tells you it's safe.

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