Fort Worth hotel explosion linked to natural gas. How will incident be investigated? 

dfwnewsa | January 9, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Fort Worth hotel explosion linked to natural gas. How will incident be investigated? 

Fort Worth firefighters and Atmos Energy workers inspect a gas pipe on Jan. 9, 2024 near the Sandman Signature hotel in downtown. More than 20 people were injured following an explosion at the hotel on Jan. 8. (Sandra Sadek | Fort Worth Report)
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Twenty-four hours after an explosion sent shattered glass flying into the streets of downtown Fort Worth, Fort Worth Fire Department Chief Jim Davis said investigators are confident the incident was connected to natural gas.But they haven’t yet determined an official cause for the Jan. 8 incident that injured 21 people at the Sandman Signature Fort Worth Downtown Hotel. 

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Fire and police are working with Atmos Energy, the hotel’s natural gas provider, to determine whether a gas leak caused the explosion or an explosion caused the gas leak, Davis told City Council members during a Jan. 9 meeting. There’s no indication that the explosion was intentional, he added. 

“(Gas) finds the lowest places in buildings, so below street level, the basements,” Davis said. “At this time of year, furnaces kick on, hot water tanks kick on, and if it’s in that flammable range of not too lean and not too rich to burn, then it finds that ignition source, and that is what potentially causes something like this to happen in people’s homes, etc.” 

With downtown streets still closed and cleanup efforts continuing outside the hotel, investigators are likely looking for clues by examining the pressure regulation devices on the property’s gas meter, said R. Don Deaver, a pipeline safety expert who has provided technical consulting to Exxon and other major oil and gas companies for decades. 

Deaver, who operates Deatech Consulting Company near Houston, has no involvement in the Sandman investigation. But he has served as an expert witness on gas pipeline explosions and other safety-related incidents for decades, including several cases involving Atmos Energy. 

Authorities will likely take a close look at the gas meter, where gas enters the building, Deaver said. Before gas can enter a building, pressure regulation devices must take high pressure gas from the pipelines and lower the pressure so it is safe for use inside the building. The regulated gas can then be distributed throughout the building for heating, cooking and other purposes. 

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If any debris, dirt or rust are caught inside of the pressure regulation devices, they may not function properly. The issue can lead to situations where gas is being released at pressures beyond what the facility is designed for and cause explosive results, Deaver said. 

“If you get any dirt or debris or rust caught into it, the valve is not going to close and squeeze down to drop that pressure,” he said. 

Officers with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) examine debris from an explosion in front of the Sandman Signature Fort Worth Downtown Hotel on Eighth and Houston streets on Jan. 8, 2024. (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)

An investigation will be needed to confirm what happened in Fort Worth, Deaver said. But he suspects debris was caught in the pipeline system. Older buildings like the Sandman hotel, which opened in 1920, typically experience more rust issues because they are operating with older pipes and infrastructure, he said. 

“It can be rust that’s happened — because natural gas is not 100% dry. It can have some moisture in it,” Deaver said. “These pieces of pipe have got lots of age to them, so there’s a possibility that this happened.” 

Investigators should also check when pressure regulation devices were last serviced or cleaned by Atmos and the building operators, Deaver said. Northland Properties bought the building in 2019 and completed renovations of the hotel last September. 

For now, the Dallas division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is assisting Fort Worth authorities with their response. The division’s spokeswoman did not immediately return a call about the federal agency’s involvement with the case. 

The Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas, doesn’t have jurisdiction over the gas pipelines inside the hotel, which belong to the customers, said agency spokeswoman Patty Ramon. But the commission does enforce safety regulations for Atmos Energy, as well as the pipeline system outside of the hotel, Ramon said. 

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“Atmos has been testing lines to check for any issues such as leaks, and that investigation is ongoing,” Ramon wrote by email, adding that local authorities are handling an investigation inside the hotel. 

In a statement, Atmos Energy said its highly trained technicians responded to the Jan. 8 incident and turned off gas service to the affected area. The company has conducted additional safety checks and is working to restore service outside of the incident area. 

“We will continue to assist the Fort Worth Fire and Police Departments and all officials in support of their efforts,” the statement reads. 

Atmos did not respond to a question about how regularly the company conducts inspections of gas pipelines, including those in downtown Fort Worth. On its website, Atmos says its system includes more than 75,000 miles of distribution and transmission pipelines along with smaller “service” lines that connect directly to homes and businesses. The company operates in full compliance with state and federal regulations, according to the website. 

Firefighters and other responders continued cleanup efforts outside the Sandman Signature Fort Worth Downtown Hotel on Jan. 9, 2024, a day after an explosion rocked downtown Fort Worth. Officials are confident the incident was connected to natural gas, but haven’t named an official cause. (Sandra Sadek | Fort Worth Report)

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Natural gas pipeline incidents are more common in Texas, the heart of the U.S. oil and gas industry, than other states. Between 2018 and 2022, Texas reported an average of 217 pipeline incidents each year to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — more than a third of the 625 pipeline incidents reported nationwide. 

The Railroad Commission struggles to enforce regulations on natural gas pipelines in the state due to understaffing, Deaver said. 

“There are 500,000 miles of pipeline in Texas,” Deaver said. “All they can do is respond to problems, but they cannot take a preventive role. The gas company has to stay ahead of the game and be in that role to ensure safety.” 

Fort Worth’s first responders are no strangers to responding to natural gas-related incidents, Davis said. Residents should contact emergency authorities if they suspect a natural gas leak, he said.

“Our message to the public is, if you have a threat of this or you’re concerned about this, call,” he said. “Always call.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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