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Investigation Reveals Damaged Pipeline Caused 2018 Natural Gas Explosion That Killed Dallas Girl

Bill Zeeble

The National Transportation Safety Board met on Tuesday to determine the cause of a 2018 natural gas explosion that killed a 12-year-old girl in northwest Dallas.

The federal agency declared the probable cause of the 2018 fatal explosion was a natural gas leak from a pipe that was damaged during a replacement done over 20 years ago.

Jennifer Homendy, a national transportation safety board member, said procedures and decisions by Atmos Energy — the neighborhoods' natural gas provider — contributed to the explosions.

“Contributing to the explosion was Atmos Energy Corporation’s insufficient wet weather leak investigations procedures. Contributing to the severity of the explosion was Atmos Energy Corporation’s inaction to isolate the affected main and evacuate the houses," Homendy said. "Contributing to the degradation of the pipelines system was Atmos Energy Corporation’s inadequate integrity management program."

This same leak caused two other fires on the same street — Espanola Drive — days prior to the fatal explosion. The gas-related problems forced 300 families in the area to evacuate.

The crack in the main pipeline led to numerous gas leaks throughout the neighborhood that went undetected.

During the week of Feb. 23, 2018, the temperature in Dallas ranged from 32 to 54 degrees and there was heavy rainfall. Atmos Energy, said those conditions made it difficult to investigate or quickly repair multiple leaks.

“They could have tested the customer piping. In this case it turned out they could have also tested the customer piping all the way to the appliances,” said Sara Lyons, the investigator in charge, who looked into the response by Atmos Energy.

This led theinvestigations team to take an in-depth look at the energy company's protocolswhen customers file complaints or incidents happen. They found insufficient training and resources are given to employees and that there are no clear protocols on how to access damages.

Reports show early warning signs in the neighborhood first surfaced around Jan. 2018.

That year, The Dallas Morning News released an investigation that found since 2006 more than two dozen homes across North and Central Texas had blown up because of natural gas leaks along Atmos Energy lines and that the company has some of the country’s oldest natural gas pipes, which made them vulnerable to corrosion and cracks.

Homendy concluded during the meeting that the deadly explosion could have been avoided.

An aerial view of the block of the neighborhood impacted by the Feb. 23, 2018, fatal, natural gas-fueled, explosion in Dallas.
Graphic overlay by Christy Spangler, NTSB / Google Earth
Google Earth
An aerial view of the block of the neighborhood impacted by the Feb. 23, 2018, fatal, natural gas-fueled, explosion in Dallas.

“I think certainly the limitations on equipment and procedures due to the wet weather conditions should have led to them shutting down the pipeline. But also there was a significant number of grade one leaks following the two incidents that clearly should have triggered a shutdown or isolation,” she said.

Robert L. Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said they issued safety recommendations to “prevent these things from happening again.”

The recommendations include more training for Atmos employees on Dallas' natural gas system, clear protocols on how to pressure test gas pipes and a procedure coordinating with local emergency responders when investigating fires and explosions.

Atmos responds

In a statement, Atmos says it’s reviewing the NTSB’s findings and recommendations.

Atmos says it believes the natural gas main was “damaged by excavation equipment" and points to "unreported third-party damage" that caused the pipe to crack and leak. Atmos says the pipe was dented, gouged and bent by a third-party excavator in the mid-1990s.

“Our number one priority is the safety of the public, our employees, and our natural gas distribution system,” Atmos said. “Our commitment to safety is evident in our people, policies, practices, and procedures, and we are resolved to learn from this tragic accident.”

This story has been updated with details from Atmos' statement issued Tuesday.

Got a tip? Alejandra Martinez is a corps member and writes about the economic impact of COVID-19 on marginalized communities for KERA News. Email Alejandra at amartinez@kera.org. You can follow Alejandra on Twitter @_martinez_ale.

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Alejandra Martinez is a reporter for KERA and The Texas Newsroom through Report for America (RFA). She's covering the impact of COVID-19 and its associated economic fallout on marginalized communities.