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Transcript:

November 21, 2008

DEBORAH AMOS: The inauguration is still two months away. Until then, the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the man in charge. So you could call this the twilight of the Bush administration. But others are calling it the midnight phase - for midnight regulations - that last minute scramble to change or undo federal rules.

Presidents do this all the time, at least since President Carter. But the Bush administration is pushing through what seems to be parting gifts to big business and favored industries.

This is how some coal mining gets done. A new government regulation would ease restrictions on dumping what's left-over into rivers and streams.

But environmentalists say all that debris threatens water quality and public health. And that's just a start. "As many as 90 new regulations are in the works" according to the WASHINGTON POST. "The doors at the New Executive Office Building have been whirling with corporate officials and advisers pleading for relief or, in many cases, for hastened decision making." The paper added, "The new rules would be among the most controversial deregulatory steps of the Bush era and could be difficult for his successor to undo."

Some examples: at the Labor Department a rule change first circulated in secret would make it harder to protect workers from exposure to hazardous chemicals and toxins, this, from a department that passed only one major occupational health safety rule for chemical in 7 ½ years.

And just this week at the Department of Transportation a rule that allows trucking companies to make drivers work up to 11 hours a day behind the wheel. This same regulation has been rejected twice by the courts.

Public Citizen, the consumer and safety advocacy group, charges that the Bush administration has created a "sweatshop on wheels" ignoring statistics that show that more than forty-eight hundred people a year are killed in crashes involving large trucks.

Bush appointees over at the EPA have been busy too on new rules that would weaken environmental protections.

Consider the vista into the Badlands of South Dakota. This is the same view, on a bad day. That's not early morning haze. It's pollution. In about a third of our national parks, pollution is often higher than EPA health standards allow.

The Bush administration seems on track to make the problem worse. The White House is finishing up a rule that would make it easier to build coal burning power plants right next door to national parks and wilderness areas even over the objection from nine of the EPA's ten regional offices.

The rule could benefit more than twenty power plants that are now planned.

Those are just a few of the last minute changes from the Bush administration before they shut off the lights and close the door. You can read more on our Web site, at pbs.org.

In nearly every case, the new rules or the undoing of the rules makes it harder for regulators to do their jobs protecting the environment, workers or consumers. And as we've seen so clearly in the financial crisis, what regulators do or don't do matters. That's true at the state, as well as the federal level, as you'll see in our next story.

An investigative reporter with WFAA, a local television station in Dallas, spent a year looking into deadly gas explosions in area homes. He produced an award winning series that asked the question: Did regulators ignore repeated warnings going back decades that put thousands of lives at risk? Our colleagues at Exposé bring you that story. It's part of Blueprint America a PBS-wide series on the state of our nation's infrastructure. It's narrated by Sylvia Chase.

SYLVIA CHASE: The early morning hours of October 16, 2006 in the Dallas, Texas suburb of Wylie.

WOMAN: It shook my whole house. You would have thought a bomb had gone off.

SYLVIA CHASE: An explosion, caused by a gas leak. It blew Benny and Martha Cryer out of their bed and trapped them under burning rubble. Neighbors tried to pull the Cryers to safety but the flames were too intense.

CRYERS' NEIGHBOR: My husband tried to put keep a hose on them to keep them from burning. We didn't know what else to do. You know, we couldn't quite reach them because it was so hot.

BRETT SHIPP: Oil and gas business is part of this state's heritage; I mean it is our heritage to drill. It is our heritage to walk around with big wads of cash from the oil and gas patch. We got to be who are because of big oil and now big gas.

SYLVIA CHASE: Atmos Energy, one of the largest natural gas distributors. In the country is headquartered in Dallas. It's the company that provided natural gas for Benny and Martha Cryer before the Wylie blast took their lives.

Immediately after the accident, the state of Texas began a probe that would look into whether or not Atmos had any responsibility in the explosion.

But that wasn't the only investigation that would be launched.

At WFAA, a Dallas TV station, news director Michael Valentine wondered: could the Cryers' deaths have been prevented?

BRETT SHIPP: And that's when the news director and assistant news director called me over and Mark Smith, my producer over and said guys, I want you to do this story from an investigative angle.

SYLVIA CHASE: Reporter Brett Shipp began his investigation in an unorthodox fashion: investigating the present, by revisiting the past. Six years earlier he had covered another gas explosion that had torn apart another neighborhood. More lives had been lost.

SYDNA GORDON: It seems like yesterday. You know, the same tree here and the same houses but when I look at the new house then it brings me back to reality.

SYLVIA CHASE: Today the house where Sydna Gordon's mom and dad lived has been rebuilt. She took Exposé there.

SYDNA GORDON: People who lived several miles away heard the explosion. There wasn't anything left. This necklace that I have on is about the largest item that we picked up. Just pieces of mother's china.

SYLVIA CHASE: The accident haunted Sydna Gordon. She wanted to know why it had happened. She knew that's what her dad would have wanted too.

After World War II, Albert Holbert worked as a metallurgist in the oil industry. His expertise: investigating pipeline accidents.

SYDNA GORDON: People die when equipment fails in the field and so daddy always considered it crucial to know what happened. That if it was a problem, that it got fixed. He risked his life to fly B-24 bombers and then to die like that was just awful.

This is the accident report, such as it was and…

SYLVIA CHASE: An attorney, Gordon began her own one-woman investigation.

BRETT SHIPP: She had filed voluminous open records requests looking to see if there was a pattern, a history of neglect on the part of not just the gas company but perhaps the state agency.

SYLVIA CHASE: Through her research, Gordon learned about a plastic pipe called Poly 1. It carried gas to her parents' house, and to thousands of other homes. It was prone to cracking and dangerous leaks.

In 1998, two years before the explosion, the National Transportation Safety Board sent out a nationwide warning about the danger of Poly 1 pipes. But at the time of her parents' death gas companies had only performed intermittent removal.

Sydna Gordon spent years trying to understand why federal warnings had gone unheeded.

She filed open-records requests with the agency in Texas that regulates the gas and oil industry and is responsible for investigating gas explosions. It is known as the Texas Railroad Commission.

MARK SMITH: She had asked for a lot of records, just a lot of records, and both Brett and I looked at each other and said, records, what kind of records do you have.

BRETT SHIPP: She said I still got that box of documents; the response to my records request is in my possession. And Mark and I were like, well, can we see it. And she was like, ya I've got it right here.

Sydna Gordon had no idea what was in that box but it was a treasure of information and it was a roadmap to the truth.

SYLVIA CHASE: But Shipp wouldn't realize the importance of that box of documents until much later.

For now, Shipp would learn from combing the WFAA archives that over the years there had been many serious explosions due to gas leaks in Texas. Several had caused deaths. He wondered if that signified a problem with the state's natural gas infrastructure.

BRETT SHIPP: I called the Railroad Commission and sent an open records request and I wanted all, a list of all the incidents involving explosions and injuries and deaths over the last six years going back to 2000.

SYLVIA CHASE: He says he was directed to the Commission's website, where he found lists of incidents with few details. It wasn't the information he was looking for.

BRETT SHIPP: That was part of my resolve at that point was this is going to take awhile.

SYLVIA CHASE: Unlike most oil and gas regulators across the nation, the three Texas Railroad Commissioners are elected rather than appointed. Michael Williams is the Commission's Chairman.

ANDREW WHEAT: Three commissioners, statewide office they spend on average 1.6 million dollars to get elected to that office. A winning campaign. And they take a lot of special interest money from the very industry that they regulate.

SYLVIA CHASE: One of Shipp's sources for his reporting was Andrew Wheat, head of research for a political watchdog organization in Austin, Texans for Public Justice.

ANDREW WHEAT: Here on this screen we have the top contributors to "Friends of Michael Williams." Who are Michael Williams' friends? Here at the top we have $50,000 category. We have two donors. One is West Texas Gas.

SYLVIA CHASE: According to Wheat's examination of public records, Michael Williams' political campaign chest has taken over 1.2 million dollars from oil and gas interests since 2001.

That sum includes some 60,000 dollars from Atmos Energy, Atmos political action committees, and interests associated with a company called TXU. In 2004, TXU sold Atmos the gas pipeline system at the center of the Wylie accident probe.

The Railroad Commission's safety director is Mary McDaniel.

Five months after the Wylie explosion - the one that killed Benny and Martha Cryer - McDaniel released her final report on the incident. It blamed the explosion on the failure of a "compression coupling," essentially, the connection between the Cryers' gas line and their gas meter.

In this photo from the report, you can see on the left, an orange pipe: the gas service line. On the right is an angled pipe, known as a pre-bent riser, which goes to the meter.

The coupling is what is supposed to join them. If the connection comes apart, as it did in this case, potentially deadly natural gas leaks out.

Brett Shipp would soon air this report.

BRETT SHIPP: A state Railroad Commission investigation released last March found that a faulty natural gas coupling under the alley caused the explosion that leveled this house killing Benny and Martha Cryer asleep inside.

In the hours that followed the Wylie explosion, Atmos Energy scoured the neighborhood and found twenty-one defective riser pipes and couplings that needed to be replaced.

Gas leaks were everywhere.

In a letter dated April 25th, Railroad Commission Safety Director Mary McDaniel issued a "safety inquiry" letter to all gas service companies in Texas seeking information about "any leaks or failures of compression risers" and any information regarding the recommended "discontinuance of these risers."

Atmos officials say they have discussed the compression fittings safety issue with Railroad Commission officials and are complying with all requests.

SYLVIA CHASE: But, Shipp understood, the Railroad Commission was not asking Atmos, or any other company, to replace that old equipment. It had only ordered that gas companies "survey" its use.

Something else caught his eye. Though Atmos Energy owned and operated the gas system beneath the Cryers' Wylie home, in the cover letter to her final report, Safety Director McDaniel found "no alleged violations of the applicable safety regulations" on Atmos's part. In fact, she praised Atmos:

"Your efforts to maintain the pipeline facilities have resulted in this favorable report. We appreciate the assistance given during the investigation."

The report said its investigation focused on what it called "third party excavation activities," and suggested that may have caused the explosion.

BRETT SHIPP: That somebody else came in and somebody else caused this pipe to break, somebody else's fault.

SYLVIA CHASE: But though the Railroad Commission had wrapped up its investigation, Brett Shipp was moving steadily forward with his. He traveled to the Commission's headquarters in Austin, the state capital, and asked to see all records related to the Wylie investigation. Because the investigation was closed, the records were publicly available.

BRETT SHIPP: I think one of the key smoking guns that we found on file at the Railroad Commission was this draft report coming from the field investigators.

SYLVIA CHASE: It was a preliminary report about the Wylie blast, one authored by a Railroad Commission engineering specialist who had personally investigated it, Alfred Garcia. And it differed from the final report in one significant detail.

The final report had said the Commission's investigation focused on "third party activities." But that was only partly the case.

BRETT SHIPP: This was their submission to their boss, the Safety Director and their proposal for the wording of the final report to be as follows: "There is a possibility of the separation of the service line from the compression coupling due to shifting of soil due to natural ground movement." In other words, guess what, this compression coupling in the ground pulled out because of the movement in the ground. That's what the investigator and his boss wanted to put in the report. Here is the same page of the final report. What's the cause? "The incident focused on third party excavation activities." No mention of shifting of the soil.

SYLVIA CHASE: If an aging coupling could come apart due to naturally shifting soil, Shipp reasoned, it was possible Atmos should have known of the risk. And this part of the state had plenty of naturally shifting soil.

MARK SMITH: And we could see that there was a real systemic problem, that Dallas, North Texas in particular, with this real expanding soil where we have hot, hot summers, droughts and then huge rainfalls, massive rainfalls that will come in it causes that soil to fluctuate, mixed with these couplings that had been in the ground in many cases for thirty years or more and knowing full well that they are probably wearing out, there was a lot of pressure to try to get this story out there.

SYLVIA CHASE: The reporters didn't appear to be the only ones concerned about compression couplings. Alfred Garcia, the investigator, had recommended in late 2006, some three months before the Commission's final report, "an expedited program to phase out the use of pre-bent risers," which join at the coupling to gas lines.

And as early as 1985, the National Transportation Safety Board had warned of the dangers of pipes pulling out of couplings. But McDaniel's final report had required "no action" by Atmos.

According to Atmos Energy's own estimates, the company still had tens of thousands of compression couplings in the ground.

Brett Shipp thought they might be ticking time bombs. He wondered, how many previous gas explosions could be linked to problems with them. But to find a pattern, he would need more documents.

Then Shipp and Smith remembered the box of documents given to them by Sydna Gordon, the attorney, who had investigated her own parents' death in a gas explosion some six years before.

Though that blast had nothing to do with couplings, Gordon had documents going back decades. The box might be filled with precisely the kind they'd been looking for.

SYDNA GORDON: Compression coupling, 12/19/77 in Temple. Line pulled out of the coupling, 8/13/72 Dallas, 10/29/00 in Little Elm. I was rather surprised when Brett told me that apparently some of these records aren't available anymore so I am very glad that I have them.

BRETT SHIPP: When you have that paper trail that we didn't know existed, she didn't know existed, but it was all in these incident reports that she hadn't gone though that we started going through that showed, wow, the Railroad Commission knew or should have known going back years that they had a problem that they never connected the dots to or didn't want to connect the dots to.

SYLVIA CHASE: Armed with Gordon's documents Smith and Shipp were now able to piece together a pattern of coupling failure that stretched back a quarter century, all across the Dallas area.

MARK SMITH: The first real problem was in Keller, Texas. There was a house explosion where one individual died. That was in 1980. Then in 1998, in Arlington, right here, three people were seriously injured in an explosion. Then in 2000 there was an explosion that killed one person and injured another in North Richland Hills in 2000. Then in 2001 we tracked a case in West Dallas here where four people were badly burned. And then in Wylie, you had the Cryer deaths, the two deaths in October of 2006.

SYLVIA CHASE: Now, Shipp says, he requested interviews with Commissioner Williams, the other two Railroad Commissioners. The requests were denied.

BRETT SHIPP: I knew that time could mean lives and I knew if we sat and waited for them to respond, somebody else could die. In fact somebody else did die, two other people died while we were waiting to get answers.

SYLVIA CHASE: It happened in May of 2007.

JOHN CURNEY: Now this is where Ms. Pawlick was sitting, when they had the first explosion.

SYLVIA CHASE: It was another gas explosion, this in Cleburne, Texas. It would eventually be linked to a faulty coupling. As the team tried to understand the couplings' deadly legacy they learned that other states, including Ohio, New York, and Minnesota, had all had serious problems with the aging piece of gas hardware. In Minnesota in 2004 a huge explosion which killed three led the state to order the removal of 30,000 compression couplings. Shipp wanted to know why Texas had not done the same.

BRETT SHIPP: We are suggesting to the Railroad Commission, folks, we have got some very powerful information that suggests that this is an ongoing problem that you guys knew or should have known about. We want to talk to you about it. I got no response, I was put off, and I had no choice but to go down to the Railroad Commission to get some answers.

SYLVIA CHASE: Shipp returned to Austin to attend a public meeting of the Railroad Commission chaired by Michael Williams.

BRETT SHIPP: "OK, will he be available at some point?"

RAILROAD COMMISSION ASSISTANT: "I don't think so."

BRETT SHIPP: "You don't think so." I remembered that day when we showed up unannounced at that commission meeting. The commissioners knew we were in the room, they knew who we were and as soon as the meeting was over they took off out the back door, they were gone. So that left just me and the safety director there to talk about it

SYLVIA CHASE: The safety director was Mary McDaniel, the same official who had found no fault with Atmos Energy in the Wylie investigation.

BRETT SHIPP: "Hey Mary, Brett Shipp with Channel 8 News. Can I talk to you about your concern with the non restraint compression coupling danger that may or may not exist?"

MARY MCDANIEL: "The Commission has initiated a survey a study to look into compression couplings. We started that back in April."

BRETT SHIPP: "Right"

MARY MCDANIEL: "Still working on it and modified it this month of July."

BRETT SHIPP: "But the initial recommendation was to do away with those. The initial recommendation was to have all the gas companies remove those pre-bent risers and compression couplings because of the history of danger and tragedy."

MARY MCDANIEL: "No, that is not what I am aware of. My field inspector had sent a recommendation in his evaluation just dealing with Atmos and when we discussed it he didn't have anything to back that recommendation up."

BRETT SHIPP: "So you don't think there's immanent danger for people in North Texas through failure of these couplings."

MARY MCDANIEL: "At this point, no."

BRETT SHIPP: "No"

SYLVIA CHASE: After a yearlong investigation, Shipp and his team were ready to go to air.

WFAA NEWSCASTER: Over the past year News 8 has amassed hundreds of documents and spent countless hours to unearth the truth. Our finding that tens of thousands of North Texas lives may be at risk. Investigative reporter Brett Shipp joins us now. He has got details for us. Brett.

BRETT SHIPP: John and Gloria, when Benny and Martha Cryer died in a house explosion in Wylie one year ago the Texas Railroad Commission, the agency that regulates the natural gas industry in this state took over the investigation, but were they really in search of the truth or have they in effect, help bury a deadly secret that lurks beneath the North Texas dirt.

SYLVIA CHASE: Over the next two weeks, WFAA unleashed a 7-part series.

BRETT SHIPP: On file with the state memo after memo dating back to the early 1980s from respected institutions such as the National Transportation Safety Board and the American Gas Association warning gas companies nationwide of the pull-out potential and the couplings limitations. Why? Because people were being killed and injured all over the country. The coupling that leaked and killed the Cryers was installed in 1979 by Lone Star Gas, the company that used to own the current Atmos system. In 1980 the couplings' manufacturer warned Lone Star officials that the couplings "will not meet new federal regulations."

SYLVIA CHASE: Soon after Brett Shipp was back on the air with some big news.

WFAA NEWSCASTER: Reporter Brett Shipp broke this story. He joins us now tonight with an update. Brett.

BRETT SHIPP: Gloria, 2 ½ weeks ago we began airing a series of stories about deadly natural gas fittings still in use under the North Texas soil. We also reported on the reluctance of state regulators, the Texas Railroad Commission, to do anything about it but tomorrow morning in Austin the Railroad Commission is expected to do an about face.

RAILROAD COMMISSIONER WILLIAMS: All in favor of the motion please signify by saying ay. All opposed signified by saying nay. Motion carries.

BRETT SHIPP: Railroad commissioners voted two to one to order an estimated 100,000 unsafe couplings pulled out of the ground immediately. The couplings affected are those attached to gas meters, typically installed in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Railroad Commission chairman, Michael Williams said it was his decision to have the couplings removed and hinted that it had nothing to do with the News 8 investigation.

RAILROAD COMMISSIONER WILLIAMS: Over the course of time, you have to go back and look at the system. Go back and look at your regulatory and safety regime. You have to make improvements and that's what we did today.

SYLVIA CHASE: In May of 2008, Shipp followed up with a report on campaign contributions and the Texas Railroad Commission.

WFAA NEWSCASTER: And a News 8 analysis of Commission Chairman Michael Williams' January campaign reports shows of the $400,000 he's raised, 42 percent came from individuals with ties to the oil and gas industry. Critics say those percentages are hard to ignore.

SYLVIA CHASE: After months of refusing Shipp's interview requests, Williams sat down with the reporter. He defended the commission's integrity and denied any implication that he is a beholden to the oil and gas industry.

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: I reject that notion. I am very, very confident in the fact that I make decisions based upon the facts, based upon good sound policy, based on what I think is in the best interest of my fellow Texans.

SYLVIA CHASE: In November, 2008, Williams was elected to a new six-year term on the Railroad Commission.

As for Brett Shipp, he has received hundreds of emails and calls responding to his reporting. And not just from residents worried about gas leaks. He's gotten tips that have hinted at stories involving serious problems within the oil and gas infrastructure across the state.

BRETT SHIPP: It is my job to make sure that these issues are brought to the public's attention and that the public is educated on the function of this agency so it's all above board. If we quit hearing complaints from people that the system is unfair and people quit dying then we can quit reporting.

SYLVIA CHASE: For now, he says, he's going to stay on that beat.

BRETT SHIPP: OK, here's a retake, coming in 3-2-1.

DEBORAH AMOS: Atmos Energy says that as of November 10th, it has replaced over 37,000 compression couplings. It anticipates removing over 61,000 more by this time next year. The total cost estimated at $45 million dollars.

That's it for the JOURNAL. You can log onto our Web site at pbs.org for more information about the bailout, midnight regulations or the gas explosion investigation in Texas. Bill Moyers will be back next week, I'm Deborah Amos.

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