It was four minutes past 6 p.m. on Feb. 19 when a massive explosion rocked the Country Club Plaza.
Confused residents and business owners flocked into the street as flames and black smoke started billowing over the buildings that line West 48th Street between Belleview Avenue and Roanoke Parkway.
"The whole house shook and the windows rattled and I thought a plane hit the house," said one witness describing the shock wave from the blast.
But the concussion felt across the western edge of the Plaza was not from an airplane crash. It came from JJ's restaurant. The popular wine bar and eatery on the Plaza had exploded a little more than an hour after a construction crew reported boring into a natural gas line.
The blast and ensuing inferno that killed one and injured 15 is also renewing concerns over the safety of natural gas pipelines.
Carl Weimer is executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a watchdog group based in Bellingham, WA.
"The thing with these pipelines, when you have an instance like you had in Kansas City, everybody starts paying attention and worrying," Weimer said.
According to the Department of Transportation, since 1986 pipeline accidents have killed more than 500 people nationally and injured over 4,000. In the past 10 years alone those accidents have taken four lives and injured 20 in Kansas, while one person died and six others were injured in Missouri.
"The chance of a pipeline blowing up in any one spot is really, really small," Weimer said. "But as you saw in Kansas City, when it does, it can be catastrophic."
Months before the explosion on the Plaza, KCTV5 began looking into the sprawling network of natural gas lines that snake their way beneath city streets and neighborhoods. There are more than 2.5 million miles of natural gas pipeline crisscrossing the country. Combined, Kansas and Missouri are home to nearly 19,000 miles of smaller distribution lines that bring natural gas into homes and businesses.
In the Kansas City Metro area, three utilities provide natural gas service to residential and business customers. Those companies are Atmos Energy, Kansas Gas Service and Missouri Gas Electric. Atmos was the only company willing to speak with KCTV5 on camera about the safety of their lines.
"Atmos Energy has one of the best safety records in the country as far as a gas company goes," Atmos Public Affairs Manager James Bartling said. "If it had a poor safety record, I wouldn't be working here."
A 35-year veteran of the gas industry, Bartling said the biggest threat facing underground natural gas lines is excavation accidents.
"People out doing construction will dig without the proper authorization and then they will hit the line," Bartling said. "That's really where the safety issues are."
Bartling spoke of that danger just five days before a company, called Heartland Midwest LLC., hit an MGE natural gas line while laying fiber optics for Timer Warner Cable. According to city officials, Heartland did not have a permit to trench near JJ's on the day of the explosion, although the company said it applied for required paperwork 13 days before digging.
"I don't want to talk about that incident," said Bob Leonberger, pipeline safety manager for the Missouri Public Service Commission, referring to the excavation accident that led to the explosion on the Plaza. "But nationally, excavation is the single biggest cause of damage to pipelines."
The Public Service Commission regulates intrastate pipeline safety in Missouri and currently is conducting an investigation into what happened at JJ's. While government regulators and utility companies regard excavation damage as the biggest threat, Weimer sounds the alarm on a different safety issue facing natural gas lines.
"When you look at all of the natural gas pipelines nationwide," Weimer said, "some of the biggest threats are corrosion or just material defects with the welds or the pipes themselves."
There is support for Weimer's safety claims in data published by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. PHMSA is the federal agency charged with regulating pipeline safety and its figures show that 41 percent of all natural gas accidents in 2012 were caused by defective materials, welding problems and faulty equipment.
Meanwhile, corrosion caused 10 percent of pipeline accidents last year.
Weimer points out that corrosion becomes an even bigger issue as lines grow older. Records from PHMSA indicate that more than half of the nation's natural gas pipelines have been in the ground for at least 50 years. Those lines are more susceptible to corrosion and thus more prone to fail. As it turns out, at least a thousand miles of the aging pipeline runs through Kansas and Missouri.
"We've got about 210 miles of our 3,600 miles of pipe that was installed before 1940," Bartling said about the lines Atmos Energy owns and operates in Kansas.
But every year the company gets a seven-figure capitol budget to replace existing gas lines. Last summer Bartling said Atmos spent $11 million to replace 11 miles of pipeline in Johnson County that was 80 years old.
"A lot of this pipe is perfectly good. There's nothing wrong with it," Bartling said. "But as pipe gets older, you just want to err on the side of caution. Make sure that you're safe."
While the older lines maintained by Atmos might be safe, that was not the case in California and Pennsylvania. In September of 2010 a steel pipeline built in 1956 exploded in San Bruno, CA, killing eight people. Then in February of 2011, an 82-year-old cast iron natural gas line blew up beneath a city street in Allentown, PA, killing five, including a 4-month-old boy.
Industry watchdogs like Weimer's maintain these types of accidents could be prevented if the government put more resources into inspections.
"I think we have seen in the last few years the number that is out there verifying what's going on is probably inadequate," Weimer said.
When it comes to federal inspectors, Weimer explains that PHMSA only has enough funding to employ about 130 inspectors for the 1 million-plus miles of natural gas lines over which the agency has jurisdiction. Staffing does not fare much better at the state level.
"Each state has maybe eight or nine of their own inspectors," Weimer said about the Public Service Commission in Missouri and the Kansas Corporation Commission.
As pipeline safety manager, Leonberger is part of the state inspection team in Missouri.
"I don't think anyone can say that you look at every weld, at every piece of pipe every time," Leonberger said.
But even if Leonberger or his counterparts in Kansas wanted to inspect every mile of natural gas line running through their respective states, the reality is they cannot. Regulatory agencies lack the manpower, money and authority to do that job, according to Weimer.
"The way the regulations are written in this country we leave the inspections and risk assessment to the companies," Weimer said.
According to Natella Dietrich, PSC's director of utility operations, "Utilities have the ultimate role of making sure that their systems are safe. But we look at the companies and their inspection records annually."
Critics worry that an inspection system that allows gas companies to perform their own safety checks with regulators simply reviewing paperwork and conducting audits is a recipe for disaster.
Just consider this past August when tragedy was narrowly averted in Nashville, TN. There, a natural gas line blew up outside of a church, destroying several cars and damaging the church sanctuary. Fortunately no one was injured in the blast. But as it turns out, the pipeline was inspected six months prior to the explosion. An investigation into the incident further revealed that the line was damaged decades before the accident, but the utility company responsible for inspecting the line never caught the defect.
Despite high profile accidents like Nashville, San Bruno, Allentown and now Kansas City, Dietrich maintains the natural gas pipelines in Missouri are safe.
"To a certain extent we're relying on their records," Dietrich said about the inspection reports filed by the natural gas companies. "But we also go out and watch them do inspections. We also have the fact that there have not been more frequent incidents, so we know that they [the gas companies in Missouri] are doing their job."
In fact, utility companies in Missouri do appear to handle their job well when it comes to system inspections. Over the past decade Missouri suffered just 27 "significant incidents" involving natural gas pipelines. Compare that to Kansas, which experienced 47 "significant incidents" over the same time period. (A "significant incident" is regulatory speak for an accident resulting in death, injury or major property damage.)
"Missouri and Kansas have stepped up in some ways," Weimer said. "Kansas has 47 different initiatives in their regulations that go beyond federal standards and Missouri has 48."
Despite those regulatory strides, Weimer sees the tragedy at JJ's highlighting at least one more safety concern. He worries that municipalities, fire departments and gas utilities hesitate too long when deciding whether to order an evacuation in the event of a natural gas leak.
"That's been an issue nationally now for a couple of years," Weimer said. "And I know there is a lot of concern about why they [gas utility workers and fire crews] were on the ground there in Kansas City for so long and didn't go in and forcefully order people to get out of the area."
At a press conference the day after the explosion, Kansas City, MO, Mayor Sly James defended the decision not to order an evacuation.
"No it's not necessarily best practice to evacuate entire city blocks of people because there's a strong odor of gas," James said. "Because a lot of times you can do more harm than good. People get panicky when you start doing things like that."
James also explained that KCFD defers to the expertise of utility companies when it comes to some safety measures in the event of a natural gas leak. Weimer said that thinking can lead to disaster.
"There's a number of really significant instances, one in California that took out a whole neighborhood" Weimer said. "The gas company there played down the severity of the leak, and, in the end, an evacuation would have saved lives."
While the PSC is not willing to say the failure to order an evacuation in Kansas City will prompt new rules or regulations, Dietrich did say the city and MGE's response to the leak will be part of her agency's investigation.
"We are continually looking agencies rules in the wake of an incident to determine if there are areas that need to be improved," Dietrich said.
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