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CBS 11 I-Team: Pipeline Problems Continue Across North Texas

NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) - The CBS 11 I-Team has uncovered hundreds of safety violations regarding the hundreds of miles of natural gas pipelines that run through North Texas.  Many of those pipelines run directly underneath our homes and businesses.

After the explosion in Lewisville that killed one man, CBS 11 started to look into Atmos Energy.  Texas New Mexico Power crews did hit an Atmos gas line back on January 11, but they claim that was only after Atmos mismarked their lines.  And it's that claim that lead us to hundreds of safety violations with minimal punishment for breaking the rules.

It's hard to forget the images of three major gas explosions; one in McKinney, one in Lewisville, and another in Gainsville.  They all happened in the last six months and in each case Atmos was criticized for not accurately marking their gas lines.

Just over a month ago Scott Deahl was killed after an Atmos gas line was hit in Lewisville.  Ron Batts is the CEO of Christian Community Action, a non-profit that owns the apartment Deahl was living in.

"His life had gotten a lot better.  That's what he would tell me," Batts remembers.

Just a few weeks ago Deahl's neighbors moved back in; which is why safety is top of mind for Batts and his organization.

"Gas is critical to our society.  It runs a lot of things.  And so we just have to understand that protocol and make sure they're always being followed," Batts says.

Days after the Lewisville explosion, the CBS 11 I-Team started digging into Atmos Energy's track record with the state.  Turns out, the company was inspected and cited for 241 safety violations in 2011 and 217 in 2012.

Scroll below to see ATMOS 2011 Evaluations With Violations:

Scroll below to see ATMOS 2012 Evaluations With Violations:

"Our staff understands, when people break our rules and break the law, they should be punished," Barry Smitherman, Texas Railroad Commission's Chairman, explained.  "And if they do it multiple times, they should be punished multiple times."

It is true, the state is fining big companies like Atmos multiple times; however, the penalties are minimal.

The I-team got a hold of a list of all the gas companies who were fined in the last two years.  Atmos is on the list 1204 times, paying out $559,550.  The majority of those fines were for mismarking their own gas lines.

An example of one of those mismarkings was in May of 2010, an incident in Lewisville off I-35.  In that case Atmos Energy mismarked the line by 300 feet; almost an entire football field.  The Texas Railroad Commission found they failed to follow safety guidelines and fined them $500 for not properly marking their lines.

"Do you think a $500 fine, though, is anything for these companies that are making millions and millions of dollars every year," CBS 11 asked the Texas Railroad Commission's Chairman, Barry Smitherman.  (Click here to download a full list of fines from 2011-2012).

"Well, often times that is part of a remediation plan. So, what we want to do is fix the problem, as well as levy a fine," Smitherman answered.

CBS 11 also spoke with Atmos Energy Spokesperson Jennifer Ryan about their fines.  She says these incidents represent a small fraction of all the work they do year-round.

"We don't want to downplay the numbers at all, because we strive to have 100% accuracy," Ryan noted.

CBS 11 also asked Atmos about the hundreds of safety violations state inspectors have uncovered.

"Again, these are alleged violations," Ryan says.  "So, one, they can be disputed.  Or two, we can fix them right away. And in most cases we fix them right away.

But fixing a violation right away doesn't always happen with Atmos Energy.  CBS 11 uncovered, in the last two years, Atmos received 26 safety violations for not repairing a dangerous gas leak quickly enough.

"You have a number of people in the industry that are violating the law over and over and over again and they pay almost nothing for that offense," Representative Lon Burnam says.

CBS 11 showed Representative Burnam the information we uncovered.

"The Texas Railroad Commission claims that they are enforcing to the best of their ability. Do you feel like they're doing enough," CBS 11 asked Representative Burnam.

"No.  No," Burnam quickly stated.  "I like a lot of the people on a personal level that work for the industry. But they don't have anybody's best interests at heart, other than their company's profit margins."

Burnam is hoping to file legislation this session that would increase fines for breaking state safety guidelines, forcing gas and construction companies to be more careful.

State legislators set the fines for the Texas Railroad Commission and the only way to increase those dollar amounts is to pass new legislation.

During the interview with Atmos Energy, Jennifer Ryan said she would look into these safety violations and get back on whether they'd been fixed.  She was also asked about routine maintenance and how the company checks their lines to make sure they were following safety guidelines.  But Atmos has yet to get back to us on either topic.

They did, however, send more information to the I-Team regarding fines and 3rd party damage:

Atmos Energy and their contractors conducted 833,662 line locates throughout Texas in 2012.  Of those locates – 553 were fined.  That equates to an error rate of .06%, and 99% of the time we get it right.  Once again, Atmos Energy's goal is a 100% success rate. In 2012, Atmos Energy sustained 2,835 damages to its pipe due to 3rd party excavators.   By comparison, in 2011 the number of 3rd party excavation damages totaled 2,945.  While the number is trending in the right direction – Atmos Energy believes these numbers are still unacceptable.  We believe additional steps, such as stricter fines and/or penalties, would help decrease these damages. In addition to stricter fines/penalties, following the current law by calling before you dig and respecting the tolerance zone would significantly reduce (almost by half) the damage to our infrastructure.

MORE: CBS 11 I-Team Investigation Into Atmos Energy

(©2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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