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Leaks from Natural Gas Pipelines Pose Disproportionate Risks to Low-income People and Communities of Color

May 12, 2022

For Spanish, click here.

A new peer-reviewed article co-authored by Commission Shift’s Executive Director, Virginia Palacios includes alarming data about Dallas

Laredo, Texas – Natural gas leaks can develop in local distribution systems posing unequal risks to people who live, work, and play nearby, according to a new peer-reviewed article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The authors looked at 2014-2017 data for 13 U.S. metro areas including Dallas and found higher rates of leaks per mile in lower income communities or those with larger populations of people of color.

“The number of leaks we observed in natural gas distribution systems are often disparate depending on race and income, especially in Dallas,” said Virginia Palacios, co-author of the article and the executive director of Commission Shift. “The Railroad Commission of Texas has an important role to play in overseeing how thorough, consistent, and equitable gas utility operators’ safety plans are.”

Although most natural gas pipeline leaks are non-hazardous, some leaks can result in disastrous consequences. A February 2018 leak in Dallas caused a home explosion that killed a 12-year-old girl in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.

Among the findings in the article: 

  • Leak density increased with increasing percent of people of color in eight of the nine metro areas considered for the analysis.
  • In seven metro areas, leak density was estimated to increase with greater linguistic isolation.
  • In seven metro areas, census tracts with lower median incomes were more likely to exhibit higher leak density.

To our knowledge, no one has done an equity and justice-driven national analysis mapping natural gas leaks. This article provides a roadmap for utilities to gauge the equity and justice of their own operations. We urge utilities to use their most recent data to perform an equity analysis and then take steps to protect people in disproportionately affected areas.

Although not the subject of the study, there are a variety of possible reasons why gas leaks go unrepaired and are unequally distributed across income, language, or ethnicity. These could include:

  • Leaks behind the meter. Typically residents have to call a plumber to fix leaks behind the gas meter, and utilities don’t handle those. Renters can have even more trouble getting a property owner’s attention on these kinds of leaks.
  • Inequitable response to leaks: When people report smelling gas, the response time can vary depending on someone’s neighborhood, race or income level. It can be more expensive and challenging to repair or mitigate gas leaks in denser urban areas.
  • Inequitable investments: Infrastructure investments often leave out low income communities or communities of color when cities focus on business districts and wealthier developments.
  • Lack of inspectors: There are nowhere near enough inspectors to monitor the safety of natural gas distribution systems. The Railroad Commission of Texas, for example, has only 65 inspectors who each cover an average of 7,300 miles of pipeline all over the state.

A Closer Look at Dallas

  • Out of the three metro areas demonstrating a strong statistical relationship between leak density and percent people of color, the largest effect was found in Dallas. 
  • Most high income census tracts in Dallas also had a lower leak density.
  • A higher leak density was observed in census tracts with greater linguistic isolation (limited English proficiency).

Language barriers are also a significant inequity, as about one third of Texans speak Spanish at home but Spanish-language information about natural gas leaks and safety is hard to find or nonexistent.

The article recommends several ways to address these gas leaks, including the following:

  • Utility companies can prioritize repair and replacement in environmental justice communities, after taking leak hazard ratings into account. 
  • Leak surveillance with advanced leak detection methods should be the norm, not the exception, helping to reduce the burden of leak detection on the public.
  • Better public reporting of data on leak locations, repairs, and pipeline incidents would boost transparency in the quality of infrastructure, attention dedicated to different segments of the distribution system, and any repeated incidences of problems.

For Dallas in particular, providing more information in Spanish and other languages would increase equity and limit disproportionate impacts. The Railroad Commission could also consider adding more inspectors to its Pipeline Safety Departmentto better monitor for problems.

"We need the Railroad Commission to make information about pipeline leaks more accessible to the public, so we can weigh in with what we're observing on the ground," said Raul Reyes of West Dallas One, an advocacy group in a predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhood. "This goes for language access, explaining technical jargon and processes, and even holding meetings at an appropriate time of day and location."

The peer reviewed article is called “Environmental Injustices of Leaks from Urban Natural Gas Distribution Systems: Patterns among and within 13 U.S. Metro Areas,” and was authored by Zachary D. Weller, Seongwon Im, Commission Shift Executive Director Virginia Palacios, Emily Stuchiner and Joseph C. von Fischer. Read the full article on the journal’s website.

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