INVESTIGATION: 911 calls for dangerous gas leaks on the rise in Lubbock

Local News

Sometimes it seems like another day, another gas leak in Lubbock. We track down the reason.

LUBBOCK, Texas — KAMC and EverythingLubbock.com on Tuesday released the results of a months-long investigation in to cut gas lines.

Gas leaks can be deadly because of the risk of fire or explosion.

The amount of calls for gas leaks in the City of Lubbock prompted our investigation into how often a gas leak was reported within the City of Lubbock.

For the 2018 year, there were about 85 damaged gas lines in the city, according to reports from the Texas Railroad Commission. In 15 of those, families or businesses had to be evacuated.

Locations of Gas leak incidents in 2018, according to Texas Railroad Commission records.

For the 2017 year, 65 gas leaks were reported in the city, according to state data.

Last December, children and staffers were evacuated from a North Lubbock daycare when a contractor hit an underground gas line with heavy equipment outside the daycare.

“We had just finished our morning activities, for our morning circle time,” said Danielle Ruiz, director of My Little Playhouse Learning Center.

In many of the cases tracked by state regulators, the person doing the digging was not careful enough, or they were not using the right tools or following procedures.

More specifically, 15 people who dug in the city did not call Texas 811, according to information gathered from Texas Railroad Commission (TRR).

Anyone who digs, whether it be a homeowner or an excavator, must call Texas 811 and work together with the contact center to make sure digging is done safely.

Moreover, there has been a recent uptick on why gas lines are hit so often, even if Texas 811 was notified prior to digging, due to the amount of fiber communication lines that have been installed in the city within the last year or two, said Atmos spokeswoman Marinda Heinrich.

If workers are going into an established neighborhood where there are a lot of pipelines installed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there is no locator wire on those.

“A lot of times those pipes are really difficult to locate,” said Heinrich. “So what we are trying to do is go back into those neighborhoods and install a new piece of technology called ‘marker balls,’ and these help us locate the pipe that doesn’t have locator wire.”

The consequences of hitting a gas line

Mike Culp, Atmos compliance manager, said for the most part, damage done from a hit gas line is slapped with a fine of $2,500.

KAMC and EverythingLubbock.com found that 28 incidents saw absolutely no penalty.

However, Culp said sometimes if it’s a contractor’s first offense, like an excavator, the RRC will have them take damage prevention training and waive the fee.

“The Railroad Commision is good about listening and justifying whether they should fine [the contractor] or not,” he said.

As the city grows, the measurements change. Meaning that the roads have been altered or curbs have been moved back.

“Sometimes those measurements are ‘10 feet from the curb back or 50 feet from the center of the street’,” said Heinrich. “We have to be really careful.”

Educating contractors

Heinrich said Atmos was well-below the national average, in terms of leaks and damages that occur.

A new law recently went into effect that makes it possible for Lubbock Fire Rescue to respond to any gas leak call that is reported to 911.

“I know we have kept the fire department busy with all this,” said Culp. “I think it has helped us realize a little bit, just added protection for the public. We live here just like everyone else in this town.”

What lessons can be learned

The day that My Little Playhouse was evacuated, there were 31 children in the building, said Ruiz.

“It was a little adrenaline rush at first, getting everybody out and making sure everybody was safe,” she said. “It is a little nerve racking, but I think we did well.”

As for the 31 children in their care, they mainly had questions.

Ruiz said the children wanted to know why they had to evacuate. They asked, “Where are we going, why are we leaving in the van?”

However, she said the children were kind of excited to get out of the daycare.

When Heinrich was asked why the lines on certain reports were not marked correctly, she said the lines were mismarked due to landscaping changes.

“I think with our growth in the city we are going to see more and more pipelines installed, more construction going on, so there is always the possibility that those could continue,” she said.

Heinrich said Atmos tries to educate all contractors about the importance of calling 811., even if they’re just planting a tree or mailbox.

“You can’t think, ‘oh, I am just free to dig,’” she said. “You have to really embrace safe digging policies.”

Atmos is upgrading their pipelines right now, so a lot of the lines are currently getting replaced, added Heinrich.

“We work everyday to educate contractors on safe digging, and we will continue to do this,” she said.

But Ruiz with My Little Playhouse said the process of contractors fixing the area they dug up took awhile.

“We actually had to call them back to get them to fix it, because our parents were driving through a big pothole,” she said. “I felt like they could have done a better job as far as patching that back up.”

Do you have questions for Texas 811 on what the costs are for private utility companies, or what happens if you hit a gas line? Go to texas811.org or call 811 from a landline or cell phone.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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