Silent Threat: Gas explosions injured hundreds, killed dozens nationwide since 2010

Federal law doesn’t require immediate disclosure of leaks to consumers

GLOUCESTER, Mass. (InvestigateTV) - Across the United States, nearly three million miles of pipelines are pumping the natural gas that makes its way into our homes. But that critical infrastructure comes with incredible risks.

In the past 12 years gas leaks have led to explosions that have claimed dozens of lives, injured hundreds of people and wiped entire neighborhoods off the map, federal data shows.

And it often happens with no warning, with a silent threat beneath the ground suddenly igniting.

Critics of the natural gas system also believe leaks and incidents go undercounted. That’s because only certain leaks and incidents have to be reported to the federal government, which doesn’t require immediate disclosure to residents.

‘I was in flames’

Wayne Sargent knows the true impact of natural gas leaks that linger and turn catastrophic.

In 2009, the former police officer returned from an overnight shift to his home in Gloucester, Massachusetts and was standing in his kitchen when his home exploded.

“I remember putting my hands up in front of my eyes to try and cover my face when I saw the balls of fire that were coming at me,” Sargent recalled.

Sargent was buried under a pile of rubble following the explosion, which a state investigation later found was caused by natural gas from an underground leak nearby that had built up in his basement.

Neighbors who had reported leaks in the area in the days leading up to the explosion rushed to free him from the disaster.

The fire destroyed the home his grandfather had built nearly 100 years ago.

Stunning photographs document the force of the blast and the extent of the damage. It blew Sargent’s front door onto the roof of his truck and sent some of his belongings rocketing through the windows of nearby homes.

What could be salvaged now sits in glass covered cases in Sargent’s living room. They’re shattered, soot-covered reminders of an experience that still haunts him.

“It’s something that damaged and hurt so much. The pain, it never goes away, but I have to learn to live with it,” Sargent said. “That day was just terrible. People ask me and I’ll say, ‘Literally it was a day in hell.’ I was in flames.”

After the explosion, Sargent spent several days in intensive care at a Boston hospital with severe burns to his hands and head.

Thirteen years later, he’s still grieving the loss of his home and his beloved dog, Penny.

He says he still seeks therapy for PTSD. But he’s tried to channel his pain into efforts raise awareness about natural gas leaks, even championing legislation related to the issue in Massachusetts.

“I didn’t want what happened to me to happen to someone else. I wanted to see if it would make a difference to try and get them to try and change the way they do things,” Sargent said.

Gas leaks pose a far greater risk

Sargent’s tragedy is hardly an isolated incident.

In 2010, a pipeline ruptured under a neighborhood in San Bruno, California, sending natural gas spewing out of a crater 72 feet long. A federal investigation into the incident detailed the inferno and its aftermath. Eight people were killed, more than were 50 injured and 38 were homes destroyed.

In 2018, explosions and fires rocked three towns outside Boston. Investigators later determined that failures in the engineering management of an on-going project mistakenly sent the full pressure of the natural gas system into customers’ homes. Reports state dozens of people were injured and an 18-year-old was killed while parked outside a house that exploded. Nearly four years later, some of the more than 100 buildings that were destroyed are just now being rebuilt.

In 2019, firefighters in Philadelphia battled an enormous fire that erupted following a natural gas leak that a new lawsuit blames on a crack in the city’s aging, corroded pipes. The five rowhomes that once stood on the site of the incident are gone. They were destroyed in the fire that took the lives of two people, including a 28-year-old man whose family is now suing the utility company involved.

InvestigateTV has analyzed 12 years’ worth of data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration or PHMSA.

According to the agency, utilities are required to report gas-related incidents that meet certain criteria, including those resulting in deaths, injuries that require hospitalization, or those that have property damage totaling more than $122,000.

Using PHMSA’s data, InvestigateTV found that since 2010 there have been more than 2,700 gas leak incidents across the country that were considered significant and that 362 of those incidents resulted in explosions.

Additionally, those incidents have injured nearly 700 people and killed more than 140.

The numbers are no surprise to Matt Casale, director of environment campaigns with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG. The organization recently released a report detailing what it sees as the dangers associated with natural gas.

“These gas leaks, these incidents, these explosions, they’re not one off. They’re not isolated. They are a symptom of the energy system that pipes explosive, dangerous gas through our neighborhoods, to our homes,” Casale said.

But Casale believes many people are not informed about the risk that’s right underneath them.

“I don’t think people are aware that it is such a widespread problem, where there are those constant, continuous leaks in our system, in the pipelines that are bringing the gas to our homes,” he said. “They pose this risk that they could light or explode, really at any time.”

The risk, PIRG and other watchdog organizations believe, is even higher than documented, given only a fraction of the nation’s leaks must be disclosed to the government.

A 2020 study published by the American Chemical Society found there are an estimated 630,000 natural gas leaks every year, just in the local distribution systems.

“The gas utilities need to be focusing their investment on identifying and fixing leaks. That should be priority number one,” Casale said.

But leak repair can be like a game of whack-a-mole but with higher stakes, chasing one leak after another. And federal data shows the number of major leak incidents throughout the entire natural gas system has remained steady over the last decade.

Reforming the repair system is a priority

The American Gas Association, which represents the distribution companies that pump gas into our houses, says most natural gas leaks in their portion of the system can be attributed to two main causes: excavation damage and outside forces like cars hitting gas meters.

Christina Sames, the AGA’s vice president for safety, operations and security, said data shows those two factors account for more than half of all leaks and serious incidents associated with distribution lines.

But InvestigateTV’s analysis also shows at least 20% of the leak incidents in distribution pipelines were linked to factors like incorrect operation, material or equipment failures and corrosion.

When discussing that part of the problem, Sames got tearful, saying, “When you look at the statistics, just in a relatively short period of time, that is a lot of lives and that’s a lot of incidents, so I get upset for the things that are out of our control. For the things that are in our control, I get upset that we didn’t have the technology, in many cases, to identify the issue.”

Sames said the issues that plague natural gas systems are now being identified and fixed faster through what the industry calls “integrity management”, where companies look for threats to the lines that move gas around the nation and decide what should be replaced, repaired, or watched. And she said incidents provide an opportunity to share lessons learned.

“Every one of these, you go back, and you say, ‘What could we do to stop this from ever occurring again?’” Sames said. “And in many cases, it’s just continuing on with the technology to get it to the next level. Fingers crossed we can get to zero incidents. That’s the goal.”

Leak surveys that are designed to detect problems before they have the potential to cause an explosion are a key part of prevention, according to Sames and the AGA.

Natural gas leak detection is also a priority for the federal government. Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates natural gas leak incidents, added natural gas leak detection to its “Most Wanted List” of transportation safety improvements.

NTSB investigator Rachael Gunaratnam stressed the importance, saying, “Leak detection and mitigation tools are essential and can make the difference between a minor incident and a deadly explosion.”

Inspections required, but critics want more frequency

Utility companies and the contractors they often use for leak detection work utilize a variety of tactics to find leaks, spending billions of dollars each year.

There are cars that can pick up leaks while driving by, like those used by Heath Consultants, a Texas-based company which demonstrated for InvestigateTV the technology it uses in its work with major utilities across the country.

Its cars not only detect leaks, but also relay data in real time so that crews can make repairs in short order.

Companies including Pacific Gas & Electric in California use drones to spot leaks. Satellites are even being tested in some pilot programs.

But for now, handheld leak detectors at the street level are still the go-to when it comes to tracking down leaks.

Crews conduct routine surveys using specialized wands that check for gas in the air and conduct patrols to look for visual signs of leaks or associated damage. During a tour with one utility company’s workers, those patrols resulted in testing of gas lines when a potential leak was detected, and flagged for follow-up.

Still, the federal requirements for inspections are not what many consider stringent enough. Right now, gas companies are only required to do inspections once a year in business districts, with inspections in less populated areas required only once every five years. PHMSA is currently reviewing those regulations to determine if changes should be made to leak survey frequency.

Sames, of the industry trade group, said most operators go beyond those requirements. And many states have more stringent requirements that go beyond the minimum federal regulations.

But even when crews spot a leak and make a repair, it doesn’t always mean the problem is solved.

Pennsylvania resident Melissa Ostroff can attest to that. After being told by her gas company last year that a series of leaks on her street had been fixed, she decided to do her own inspection. Ostroff just happened to have a special gas detection imaging camera for her job as a certified thermographer.

“I was living in a different kind of ignorance, I guess, prior to coming out here with the camera, thinking I could just trust the utility to take care of it and when they left, it was fine. But apparently that’s not always the case,” she said.

Ostroff captured images showing natural gas flowing out of a manhole cover on the street between her apartment and an elementary school, eventually supplying the videos to her gas company and lawmakers. She blogged about the situation, calling for repairs and more awareness about leaks. Ostroff said repairs were made and the pipe under her street was prioritized for a complete replacement, in part as a result of her advocacy.

Right now, there is no federal requirement for companies to immediately or directly notify the public about the leaks they find, how they’ve been graded for risk, and when they’ll be repaired. That’s something advocacy groups and some lawmakers say needs to change.

Senator Ed Markey, D-Mass., was instrumental in closing loopholes related to problems in the natural gas system following a massive incident in his state in 2018. The legislation is known as the PIPES Act.

He said there should be more transparency.

“The public should 100% be informed. I think the public has a right to know if there’s a danger, because then they’ll be a public response, demanding change, demanding safeguards be put in place,” Markey said.

The AGA maintains the public is adequately informed about leaks and incidents, with Sames pointing to annual reports and other information made available through PHMSA’s website.

When asked whether the public should get more immediate information when leaks occur in their area, she said, “If it’s hazardous, then the companies are going to make sure that you’re aware to stay out of this area. If it’s potentially impacting your house, they will make sure you’re evacuated. They’re going to take the precautions to keep you safe.”

Wayne Sargent doesn’t feel that way.

According to a state investigative report, leaks had been reported, and crews worked on the gas lines in his neighborhood in the weeks leading up to the explosion that took the only home he’s ever known. But he says he didn’t learn about the scope until after he lost nearly everything.

Sargent’s house has now been rebuilt on the same site, marked in a way that almost feels like a museum honoring what happened.

“It’s always with me, but I’ve learned to live with it,” he said. “Certain things will trigger what I remember from that morning, but I learn to live with it because that’s what you have to do.”

Read the full report from U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Environment America Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group below:

Joce Sterman

Joce Sterman

Joce is a national investigative reporter focused on accountability reporting on the failures of government agencies, product flaws and other transparency issues.