When gas lines meet sewer lines: The worst case scenario lurks across Tri-State


MIDDLETOWN, OH (FOX19) - It took days to collect all the pieces of 2212 Crescent Boulevard. Parts of the home that once stood there were scattered down two Middletown streets.

A grandmother and her three grandchildren barely made it out before natural gas filled the home.

And blew it to pieces.

“I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want my grand babies to die.”
Vikki Gibson remembers March 13, 2006 well. It was the day a plumber showed up to her daughter’s home to unclog a sewer line. A few minutes into the job, there was trouble.
“He come running up the stairs. He says, you got three minutes to get these children out of here,” Vikki Gibson remembered. We interviewed Gibson last week, back at the Crescent Boulevard scene.

It was the first time she’d been back there since the day she saved her three grandchildren from the explosion.
“He says, the house could explode anytime,” Gibson remembered the plumber telling her that morning. “I got these babies out just in time,” Gibson said.

After putting the three children in a car, Gibson said she turned around to take a look at the house. “I saw the biggest fire of everything,” Gibson told FOX19 NOW’s Jody Barr, “That was that house. And, I fell to my knees. I didn’t know what was going on.”
A few minutes later, Gibson called her daughter to let her know her house had exploded.
“She told me my house was gone and all I wanted to know was where were my babies,” Mechelle Eldridge told FOX19 NOW.
Eldridge was at work and her mother was babysitting that morning.

Some time passed before Eldridge said she started the process to find out what caused her house to explode. To find answers, Eldridge and Gibson said they hired an attorney to try to recover some of what they lost.
A little more than a year later, Eldridge said she found out what happened.
"He said there was a gas line in a sewer line and he didn't know how that got there, but he was going to figure it out," Eldridge said, recounting the conversation she had with her attorney.
The attorney later determined the plumber ran an auger into the sewer line and accidentally cut the gas line that had been cross bored into Eldridge's sewer lateral, Eldridge said.  The gas line was installed using an underground boring machine, which doesn't allow the boring machine operator to see what might be in the way of his underground auger as he drills a tunnel under the ground for the gas line to run through.
In 2008, Eldridge and Gibson sued Duke Energy, the contractor who installed the gas line and the plumber who showed up to unclog the line. The case worked itself through the Butler County courthouse and in July 2009, all sides reached a settlement.
Duke Energy and Arby Construction agreed to pay Gibson $30,000 if she d ropped the lawsuit. On July 30, 2009, Gibson signed the settlement papers and agreed to the deal. Gibson's attorney collected a third of the settlement while a few hundred more dollars went to pay for some of the medical bills Gibson collected following the explosion.
In settling the case, none of the named defendants assumed responsibility for the explosion or the alleged "personal and psychological injuries," Gibson claimed to have suffered during the lawsuit. The settlement documentation stated, "…nothing in this Agreement is an admission of liability on the part of Defendants, but that this Agreement is made solely to compromise a disputed and doubtful claim for the purpose of avoiding further litigation."
"Plaintiff further acknowledges that Defendants expressly deny any liability to Plaintiff or to any other entity or person for the Explosion or any related issues addressed in the Lawsuit," the settlement records show.
Eldridge told FOX19 NOW she received a $19,999 settlement and her three children received $9,999. A search of the Butler County clerk of court files does not show Eldridge's lawsuit or any settlement records on file in the county.
"It was not worth that," Eldridge told FOX19 NOW, "I lost things that couldn't be replaced."
Middletown wasn't the first time a house was blown apart from the result of a cross bore, but it certainly was an explosion heard around the natural gas industry, Danny Hixon told FOX19 NOW.
Hixon owns a cross bore consulting company and is a nationally-recognized expert in the field.
"The real risks with a natural gas-type cross bore is the risk of an explosive product being transported from structure to structure via underground drainage systems," Hixon said.
"I've heard them liken to ticking time bombs," Hixon explained.
Hixon travels the country helping gas utilities find ways to implement post construction inspection practices to reduce the risks of creating cross bore situations. Hixon said the 2006 Middletown explosion changed the way some gas utilities viewed cross bores where before, he said, some utilities didn't consider the issue a risk.
Cross bores often happen because most sewer laterals—the line running from the main line to a home  or building—aren't part of the utility locating process, Hixon said. Contractors use the utility location marking system, which is known as 811 in many states, to make sure they steer clear of other buried utilities, such as electrical mains and buried telephone and fire optic lines.
Since Middletown, some utilities use video inspection technology to travel the length of a sewer lateral to make sure a gas line—or any other underground utility—hasn't been bored through.
"That's our safety net," Hixon said, "To ensure that we catch any glaring yellow pipe inside those sewer lines before this potentially becomes loss of property or loss of life."
Without a camera inspection, Hixon said you'd likely never know your sewer line was a victim of a cross bore until it was too late. But, the risk isn't isolated to a single home when a cross bore is cut.

"The surrounding homes, when this happens, it has often times followed like conduit from structure to structure to structure; it's a community concern," Hixon said.
It was a gas main installation a little more than a year ago that Danny Hixon said left 27 sewer laterals on Elizabeth Street with a gas line running through them. It happened on Elizabeth Street, a little more than a block away from
Cincinnati's city hall.
WEB EXTRA: Watch the complete report on the Elizabeth Street cross bores here:

Following the 2006 explosion, Duke Energy got away from the "industry standards" of underground gas line installation and created its own policies in an attempt to protect against cross bores inside of its Ohio and Kentucky service areas.
That news came from Duke Energy's Gas Field and Systems General Manager, Gary Hebbeler. Hebbeler heads the utility's efforts to locate, remove and prevent cross bores in the Tri-State coverage area.

"After 2006, we actually are industry leaders in developing the standards for cross bores," Hebbeler told FOX19 NOW.

In 2006, Duke Energy started working to locate and inspect all private and public sewer lines anywhere the utility installed new gas lines using trenchless technology. The inspections included pre-construction video inspections of all sewer laterals along the gas line and video inspections of those same lines after the gas line installation is finished.
"We think we've got processes in place to ensure the safety of the communities," Hebbeler said.
Duke Energy also created a "legacy" inspection program, which allows the utility to perform video inspections of older gas line installation projects where trenchless technology was used.

In 2010, Cincinnati's Metropolitan Sewer District contracted with Duke Energy to help video inspect sewer laterals. The city used the partnership to help map the city's sewer lines using GPS technology, MSD engineer Randy Schneider told FOX19 NOW.

We asked Duke Energy for the number of cross bores found and repaired since the utility started working on this in 2006. Hebbeler could not provide any of those numbers.

MSD's Randy Schneider did.
Between 2010 and 2015, MSD video inspections uncovered around 150 cross bores inside portions of the neighborhoods the city inspected for Duke Energy.

"Did that surprise you," FOX19 NOW investigative reporter Jody Barr asked Schneider. "I don't know," Schneider said," I didn't know what to expect, honestly."

MDS MAPPED: the city's sewer utility provided FOX19 NOW with 10 separate addresses and video inspections of confirmed cross bores located in the city between June and October of 2015. MSD had each one repaired. See where those cross bores were:

MSD was also able to make 3,000 repairs to its sewer systems during the five year partnership with Duke Energy. But, MSD was not able to inspect every sewer lateral inside the city to make sure no one is at risk of another Middletown.

"I think it was extremely successful and very beneficial to both parties and I think that's unique to Hamilton County," Schneider said, referring to the Duke-MSD partnership.

Despite Duke Energy's efforts to video inspect for cross bores, Hebbeler admitted, the utility has not rid the city of all potential cross bores, "To date, we haven't checked every single one, but we've made significant progress since 2006," Schneider said.
"Could there still be cross bores out there that Duke Energy has no idea of," Barr asked Hebbeler. "The only thing I can tell you is we've made significant progress in ensuring the safety of the communities," Hebbeler said. "So, no," Barr asked. "We've made significant progress in ensuring the safety," Hebbeler answered.
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