Explosions from unregulated pipelines can kill in Texas while energy companies go unpunished

Explosions from unregulated pipelines can kill in Texas while energy companies go unpunished

People can die when small rural pipelines called “gathering lines” explode. But after decades of talk among industry representatives and regulators, the death of a little girl in Texas serves as a reminder that there are still no rules.

STANTON — Delaney Tercero, 3, was sitting on her family’s couch with her father and sister that summer day. Her mother was doing laundry.

They didn’t know a pipeline with a dime-sized hole a few yards from their front door was filling their mobile home with raw natural gas.

Delaney’s mother opened the dryer. The house blew up.

Men pulled Delaney from the rubble. A neighbor wrapped her in a scarf, trying to comfort her. Others rubbed burn cream on her sister’s burns. Witnesses told responders her mother was burned “head to toe.”

A helicopter whirled Delaney to a burn unit in Lubbock, but she died two days later, 100 miles from home. Her mother, father and sister were badly burned in the Aug. 9, 2018, explosion, but they lived. That still amazes their next-door neighbor, Ronnie Littlefield.

“Those poor people there,” Littlefield said on a recent Sunday afternoon, looking over their fence at the debris field where the family’s home once sat. “I don’t know how anybody survived.”

The state dispatched inspectors, and they found the pipe’s anti-corrosion coating had been “compromised.” They also found it had been leaking for “an undetermined length of time.”

But Targa Resources Corp., the $9.6 billion Houston company that owns the line, will face no penalty from state or federal officials for the explosion.

Targa didn’t violate any rules because for this type of pipeline, there are no rules.

They’re called “gathering lines,” generally small pipelines carrying oil and gas from wellheads to processing sites. The Targa pipe was connected to a battery of tanks near the two homes in the pumpjack-studded farm fields outside Midland. Targa did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

It was a small part of a network of thousands of miles of pipes underlying the frenzied oil and gas development in the Permian Basin. Nationally, more than 450,000 miles of such gathering lines snake underground from wells, and reports of death and injury have emerged from Texas to Pennsylvania.

It’s not known how many fatalities have occurred because the federal government doesn’t keep records on explosions from rural gathering lines. Neither do most states.

By Mike Lee | Mike Soraghan, The Texas Tribune