Brenham, Texas, and the highly dangerous character of gas and its tendency to escape

Imagine the fireball in 1992 in Brenham, Texas on your land or next to your children’s school or in Riviera Beach or Tampa or Jacksonville. The pipeline companies that stored too much “natural” gas in a cavern 2,000 feet below ground that leaked and exploded and killed and injured people, incinerated cattle, and destroyed houses got off on some charges because they believed their own PR that their inherently dangerous product was safe. Will you accept a pipeline company’s bet that a yard-wide pipeline only a few feet below ground won’t leak or that an LNG storage or export facility in a highly populated area won’t leak? Or should we get on with clean, fast, safe, solar power in the Sunshine State and everywhere else?

A retired Air Force Colonel with an advanced degree in nuclear physics, Walter Carss, was an eye witness to the explosion. Carss said the countryside was suddenly illuminated by a brilliant flash of light. Turning in his chair, Carss looked in the direction of the cavern. There, he observed an enormous fireball billowing skyward. As the fireball cooled, it began to turn into a huge pillar of grey smoke. Carss then noticed a visible shock wave racing across the rural landscape. He watched the shock wave rip limbs off trees and flatten the grass as it inexorably rushed across the creek and pastures. When the shock wave reached him, Carss reported hearing “the loudest noise that I have ever heard.” Although his home was more than a mile from the cavern, Carss found himself surrounded by flying glass and insulation. The brick wall on the side of the house nearest the blast was shattered and the doors, windows, and their casings were blown out of the wall. The roof of the house was also badly damaged.

Here is a TV news report, Robert Riggs Reports Brenham, Texas Deadly Pipeline Explosion, “the gruesome sight of dozens of head of livestock burned alive left the prison chain gang speechless”:

By midafternoon more survivors crawled out of the hellish debris, in shock muttering that they thought an atomic bomb had been dropped.

At trial attorneys for the pipeline companies admitted it was their clients’ fault, yet six years after the accident their appeal claimed they hadn’t really meant that there wasn’t enough evidence for the jury’s finding of negligence and gross negligence, damages were excessive, etc. The first quote above is from the decision by Court of Appeals of Texas, Houston (14th Dist.), No. 14-96-00825-CV, decided 15 October 1998, SEMINOLE PIPELINE COMPANY MAPCO INC v. BROAD LEAF PARTNERS INC III. It also contains this gem:

We begin our analysis by noting that the transportation and storage of natural gas is an inherently hazardous venture because the potential for disaster is enormous. The Supreme Court has observed:

In the operation of its business a gas company is bound to exercise such care and diligence as to avoid injury to the property of others by the escape of gas. The degree of care required to prevent injury has been variously stated to be ordinary care, due care, due and reasonable care, great care, a high degree of care, and the highest degree of care. This variety of expression means no more, however, than that care and diligence should always vary according to the exigencies which require vigilance and attention, conforming in amount and degree to the particular circumstances under which they are to be exerted. Therefore, in view of the highly dangerous character of gas and its tendency to escape, a gas company must use a degree of care to prevent damage commensurate to the danger which it is its duty to avoid.

Prudential Fire Ins. Co. v. United Gas Corp., 145 Tex. 257, 199 S.W.2d 767, 772-3 (1946).

Appellants were well aware of the potential danger for property damage, personal injury, and death that could result if the cavern was overfilled….

The appeal court’s judgment was that the pipeline companies were indeed guilty of negligence and gross negligence. They weren’t guilty of the higher degree of culpability of malice merely because the pipeline companies didn’t believe the cavern they had deliberately overfilled with gas would explode and they weren’t even sure it was overfilled because of their sloppy inventories. More news coverage of what their gross negligence caused, “For a good square mile around the center of the explosion, trees were stripped and burned, homes and barns were leveled, cars were mangled, dogs, cats, and livestock lay dead.”:

“Isn’t it totally destroyed?“

“Oh yes.”

The appeal court upheld the punitive damages, partly because:

The character of appellants’ conduct placed the owners of neighboring lands and residences in profound danger of a catastrophic explosion. The culpability of Mid-America and Seminole is further increased by their knowledge of the facility’s limitations, the history of inventory miscalculations and overfills, the intermittent reliability of the sole automatic shut-down device on the brine string, and the inability of dispatchers in Tulsa to remotely shut down the cavern. Neighboring land owners were unaware of the risks being taken by appellants and were unable to take any protective measures. Their homes, their possessions, their lands, their livestock, and their physical safety were jeopardized by appellants’ conduct. Few commercial activities carry the inherent capability of achieving the magnitude of destruction presented here. We find appellants’ cavalier posture toward the storage of more than 300,000 barrels of natural gas liquids and the threat imposed to neighboring land owners is highly offensive to any sense of justice and propriety.

You might think it takes a huge cave full of gas to cause destruction on that scale. Nope:

The devastation wrought by the explosion was fueled by a cloud of no more than 5,000 barrels of vaporized gas, a very small percentage of the cavern’s inventory.

Anybody want to bet that a 36-inch pipeline designed to transport more than 1 billion cubic feet per day couldn’t leak that much gas? Sabal Trail wants to make that bet for you. Will you accept that bet regarding your homes, possessions, lands, livestock, and physical safety?

(At 1 LNG Gallon = 82.6 standard cubic feet of natural gas and about 30 gallons per barrel, 1 Bcf a day is about 400,000 barrels of LNG a day, or more than 16,000 barrels an hour. Feel free to correct my calculation. The point remains that a yard-wide pipeline carries a lot more gas than leaked in Brenham, Texas.)

No point agonizing over it, though, because the appeal court held that gross negligence without actual malice wasn’t enough to support claims of mental anguish:

The evidence shows appellants were grossly negligent in their operation and maintenance of the cavern, and that appellees experienced frustration, depression, anxiety, sorrow, and anger over the destruction of their property. Appellants’ conduct was unconscionable, however, appellees have presented no evidence to suggest appellants actions were motivated by animus, hostility, malevolence, or ill-will. Without this additional element, the presence of gross negligence alone is not sufficient to support an award for mental anguish arising solely from damage to property.

So without malice but with gross negligence, those pipeline companies caused this, “everything destroyed… I could hear my daughter crying….”:

Kelly Brown wrote for The Eagle 7 April 2012, Salt dome explosion: 20 years later,

Simply put, it was a trade off between revenue and safety. Money won.

It wasn’t just mechanical failures and human errors, it was organizational failings caused by a company culture that didn’t make safety paramount, didn’t train its responders and dispatchers, didn’t encourage safe operations and didn’t provide communication training or tools for its employees. The system was loaded with opportunities for failure.

Why does that sound familiar? Oh, right: Spectra Energy’s long record of leaks and spills and explosions including recent fines for failure to follow either federal regulations or its own corporate procedures. And the fracking-caused rush to export liquid natural gas from Florida right at the end of the Williams-Spectra-FPL Transco -> Sabal Trail -> FSC pipeline. Will we let money win over safety again?

Meanwhile, have you ever heard of a solar panel explosion? By Sabal Trail’s own numbers, half as much land as the pipeline would take could supply just as much power from the sun, and we can get that solar power faster, cheaper, and with no risk of explosion. Let the sun rise on the Sunshine State!


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