Dallas City Council Members complained that Atmos Energy natural gas line replacement plans unveiled Wednesday are too slow.
A company briefing to the City Council Wednesday included new promises for better communication and faster pipe replacement since a February 23 explosion that killed 12 year old Linda Rogers. It brought new public attention to old pipes.
“A little girl died and that’s when Atmos kicked it into gear,” City Councilman Omar Narvaez said at the briefing.
Company executives said safety has always been their highest priority.
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“We’ve learned a lot of lessons from this and we will be communicating much more frequently with the city and with all of our customers,” said Atmos Director of Public Affairs Jennifer Altieri.
The briefing included at list of the 40 largest replacement projects scheduled in Dallas this year and an interactive map to show the locations. Atmos said it also posted new records on its website.
A complete line replacement for 2,500 homes in the neighborhood surrounding the deadly explosion was part of a fourfold increase in capital investment since 2005, Atmos CEO Mike Haefner said.
“I can assure you our system is safe today and with the investments we’ve made, it is safer than it has ever been,” Haefner said.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said he would prefer to have an independent review of Atmos safety.
“We need to tell our citizens we’re safe. I need somebody else looking to say that’s the truth,” Rawlings said.
The Texas Railroad Commission regulates gas utilities and Rawlings said the city has limited authority over Atmos.
Atmos executives said the explosion and a rash of leaks in distribution system for that Northwest Dallas neighborhood were the result of unique soil conditions and exceptional rainfall that could not have been predicted.
“It was operating as expected up until that point in time,” Haefner said. “It was very concerning to us as it is to everyone because we’re seeing damage to our pipelines and leak occurrence that we’ve never seen before.”
City Councilman Scott Griggs said other underground systems in Northwest Dallas should also have suffered catastrophic failure at the same time in February if those unique conditions suddenly attacked gas lines.
“Why are the only underground conduits affected, yours? Why aren’t underground water conduits affected, sewers, pools, sprinkler systems,” Griggs asked.
Griggs said some of the company’s oldest cast iron pipes could still be in the ground for years to come in the replacement plan announced Wednesday.
“We need them replaced much sooner than 2023. I want to see these old pipes replaced in Oak cliff, other parts of the aging city, in the next year,” he said.
The company suggests more than doubling the 40 or so contract crews it has working in the Mid-Tex Division now. Executives said they would investigate the request to replace even more pipes but finding additional qualified contractors may be difficult. Customers could also be forced to pay the cost.
Councilman Phil Kingston said Atmos rates have increased 36% over the past 5 years.
“It’s very odd to have a situation in which a regulated utility is cranking at 36% increase in rates over the last 5 years and the answer is we simply could not have done better,” Kingston said.
Haefner said Atmos will discontinue estimated billing for winter months in the future after bills spiked this winter with higher than expected usage.
“We tried winter estimation. It did not work. Certainly didn’t work as we had hoped and we are changing course,” Haefner said.
Atmos has 1.3 million customers and 31,000 miles of pipeline in the Mid-Tex Division which includes Dallas and more than 500 other communities. Atmos has more than 1,700 Mid-Tex employees including 771 in Dallas.