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Pipeline transportation is one of the most cost-effective methods to transport natural gases and hazardous liquid products to homes and businesses across the nation. Pipeline transportation can be one of the safest methods of energy transportation when it is properly maintained. Pipeline infrastructure is vital to industry, energy security, and economic well-being in the United States. Per the American Gas Association, there are more than 73 million residential, commercial, and industrial natural gas customers in the United States. As well, natural gas meets more than one-fourth of the United States’ energy needs. Many Americans use natural gas to heat their homes, warm their water, and cook their food. Natural gas is affordable for homes and businesses to use as an efficient energy source for water heaters, vehicles, laundry, kitchen, heating, lighting, and outdoor living spaces.

Natural gas is an energy source used everywhere you may go–from homes to schools, stores, hotels restaurants, and hospitals. As the United States continues to develop, and more demands are placed on energy transportation, it becomes necessary to invest in upgrading infrastructure, including these aging pipelines.

How is Natural Gas Distributed?

Natural Gas is a fossil fuel found deep beneath the earth’s surface. It is primarily made of methane and is composed of four hydrogen atoms and one carbon atom and is one of the cleanest fossil fuels. Natural gas is extracted from the ground and is distributed to consumers through a network of pipelines which span nearly 2.5 million miles national wide. The gas is delivered to consumers through high-pressure pipelines, which must then go through a process to reduce its pressure before entering into the smaller pipes, and eventually, homes and businesses across the nation.

The natural gas industry is subject to significant oversight and regulation to ensure public safety. The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration (PHMSA) establishes federal safety standards for pipelines. PHMSA can also partner with state pipeline safety agencies to facilitate the inspection and enforcement of intrastate pipelines. Individual states can also regulate intrastate pipelines beyond the federal requirements imposed by PHSMA, and there are hundreds of state-specific safety regulations currently in place.

Is there danger behind natural gas distributions?

Despite the amount of regulation and oversight the industry is subject to, aging pipeline infrastructures still pose a high risk, and are of great concern, to public safety. In September of this year, explosions in three towns outside of Boston highlighted those aging energy infrastructures have an extreme risk for explosions, injuries, and devastations. In these towns north of Boston, a teenager was killed, and at least 25 others were injured, along with dozens of homes in ruin, following a series of natural gas explosions. According to data from the PHMSA, there has been more than 300 fatalities and 1,200 injuries caused by natural gas pipeline incidents in the last 20 years. Moreover, Since 2010, there have been 1,300 oil spills from U.S. pipelines – or one spill every two days.

In February of this year, gas-related fires in Dallas killed a 12-year-old girl, along with destroying three residences and injuring others. Atmos Energy had been aware of gas leaks in the Dallas neighborhood for more than seven weeks before the gas-fueled explosion killed Linda Michelle Rogers. A later review by the National Transportation Safety Board revealed that several sections of pipeline near the incident site failed pressure tests. Atmos crews were investigating and repairing leaks directly behind the house the night before the blast, in response to an explosion and subsequent fire on a neighboring street. Atmos Energy did not evacuate residents or shut off gas service until after the explosion early the next day. In the days following the explosion, 29 gas leaks were discovered in the neighborhood.

A gas explosion in 2014 proved deadly in East Harlem, New York City where eight were killed and the blast injured 50. In 2017 the utility company Consolidated Edison agreed to pay $153 million to settle charges that it violated safety regulations. Consolidated Edison had been fusing various pipes, replacing leak-prone pipeline, and surveying to identifying gas leaks in the area.

In 2011, five people were killed by a natural gas explosion in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and regulators called the utility’s safety record “downright alarming.” Additionally, eight people were killed and 38 homes were destroyed in San Bruno, California in 2010 when a Pacific Gas and Electric gas pipeline exploded.

Of the 2.5 million miles of pipeline, over half of this existing pipeline is over 50 years old. Regardless of its age, all of the 2.5 million miles of pipeline infrastructure, will eventually need to be replaced or rehabilitated. The PHMSA’s call to action identifies cast and wrought iron, and bare steel pipelines, as the highest risk infrastructure.

Cast and wrought iron pipelines are among the oldest energy pipelines constructed in the United States. Many of these pipelines were installed over 60 years ago and still deliver natural gas to homes and businesses today. However, the degrading nature of iron alloys, the age of the pipelines, and pipe joints design have significantly increased the risk involved with the continued use of such pipelines. PHMSA calls for the replacement of cast and wrought iron pipelines. The Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 calls for the Department of Transportation to conduct a state-by-state survey on the progress of cast iron pipeline replacement. For updates on the states’ progress, contact information and incident and mileage data, interested consumers should visit PHMSA’s state pipeline profiles.

The amount of cast and wrought iron pipeline in use has declined significantly in recent years, due to increased state and federal safety initiatives and pipeline operators’ replacement efforts.  Nineteen states have entirely eliminated cast or wrought iron natural gas distribution lines within their borders—Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Uncoated steel pipelines, also known as bare steel pipelines, have for the most part been taken out of service. However, some of these pipelines are still operating today. The age and lack of protective coating typically make bare steel pipelines of higher risk as compared to some other pipelines and candidates for accelerated replacement programs. As the United States’ aging pipeline infrastructure ages even further, the likelihood of devastating oil and gas spills also increases due to the effects of corrosion on steel.

What can consumers do to stay safe?

If consumers believe they are smelling gas in their homes, they should act fast—leave the house or building immediately and call 911. Activities which can cause a spark should be avoided if natural gas odors are detected, such as lighting a match, making a cell phone call, or turning on lights or appliances. Homeowners can also be proactive by calling their utility companies or fire departments to request to have their gas lines checked for leaks and to learn where pipelines are within their home. Safety checks can be requested at any time.

Additionally, if you or a loved one have been injured in a pipeline explosion, the team at Morrow & Sheppard LLP can provide a free, confidential case evaluation, from our trial-ready, personal injury lawyers. Morrow & Sheppard LLP is also currently representing a family injured in a violent natural gas home explosion that occurred in the Denver suburbs in May 2017, causing severe burns to two small children.  Our investigation has uncovered that the leak had been happening for years and that gas leaking near the location had been reported to Xcel Energy in the past.  Xcel Energy denies liability.  The lawsuit is pending in Colorado state district court in Adams County, Colorado. Morrow & Sheppard LLP fully intends to hold them responsible for the burns and injuries they caused to Morrow & Sheppard LLP’s clients and is seeking millions of dollars.

Morrow & Sheppard LLP’s personal injury attorneys and regularly handle cases involving catastrophic injuries. Our attorneys are licensed in Texas and Louisiana and have been admitted on a temporary basis to handle cases all around the country.

If you have been injured in a home explosion, contact the team Morrow and Sheppard LLP to protect and assert your legal rights.