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On the night of December 19th, 2010, a home exploded in Chantilly, Virginia. Firefighters had received a call for a gas leak, but by the time they arrived the blast had brought the home to the ground. According to eyewitnesses, the front door landed across the street in a neighbor's yard.
The home belonged to the Nguyens, a family of four who thankfully, were out to dinner. First generation Americans, they say it represented their American dream. "Everything we built up for my whole life and it's gone," says Thuan Nguyen. "It's really tough to look at."
According to the Fire Marshal's report, the explosion "was most likely due to the ignition of natural gas" (read the entire report here). A spokesman told ABC 7 News that gas leaking from a pipe in the street had migrated into the home.
ABC 7 News could not get any more information about the explosion, because Washington Gas won't release its investigation. Larry Leeds, President of the Brookfield Civic Association, has advocated for the family and the neighborhood. "I think Washington gas is screwing around," he says, "because they don't want to pay any money. I understand that. This is all about the money."
Over a series of months, ABC 7 News has looked into Washington Gas. In the process, we obtained a surprising internal memo, sent during deliberations over how to address a spike of leaks in Prince George's County. It reads, "We are NOT planning on an overall leak survey since that could result in finding new leaks" (read the entire memo here).
And former employees of Washington Gas have come forward for the first time, to share their own recollections. "I'm concerned about the customers and general safety of the public. And I think it's been jeopardized," says William Gibson, a retired thirty-four-year Washington Gas employee. "And I think it's all been due to, again, a lot of profiteering on behalf of the gas company."
Three former employees describe leak evaluations as loose. They say while working for the company, they found a number of so-called Grade Onesthe most dangerous kind. But instead of immediately fixing them Washington Gas argued over the grade, and replaced them with someone who'd lower it.
"[There were times] I strongly felt from all my years of experience that it's a grade one leak," says Warren Davis, a retired thirty-six-year employee. "And I turned it in as a grade one, only to find out the next day that someone went out behind me, and...they may say, 'well this is actually a 2.'"
If Washington Gas finds a Grade One leak, the company must fix it immediately. But by grading it a Two, the company may have fifteen months to fix it. And documents from the Virginia State Corporation Commission show just how pervasive this practice may be (read the inspection reports here).
In two 2008 cases, "a high concentration of gas [was found], butnothing was done." In another, Washington Gas found a "90% gas, Grade 1 leak, andthe leak was downgraded to a 2." The reports also identified 150 cases in Virginia alone, from 2008-2009, where Washington Gas changed orders for repairs to re-grades, despite the fact that a high concentration of gas was still recorded. The SCC didn't take action because Washington Gas claimed the re-grades were justified.
Over a series of weeks, ABC 7 News contacted Washington Gas for an interview. The company wouldn't give us one, but a spokesman sent a statement:"There is no basis of truth to this story. Washington Gas is a highly regulated regional utility subject to stringent federal and state safety standards and the company grades leaks according to industry guidelines. These reckless and false accusations, created by disgruntled former employees, were investigated thoroughly by regulatory authorities and Washington Gas. Safety is a clearly defined expectation for every employee. The welfare of our customers and the public is fundamental to the proper management of leaks."
Meanwhile, back in Chantilly, the Nguyens now live in a rental home because their insurance won't pay enough to rebuild. And while they worry about paying for their kids' college, they say Washington Gas won't even tell them what happened to their home. Nine months later, the company says it's still investigating the explosion (read Washington Gas spokesman Ruben Rodriguez's letters to the community here).
"If Washington Gas doesn't have anything to hide - it's not their fault - then they can come forward and show us what happenedto our home," Nguyen says. "They are building a stone wall. They want to cover everything. They don't let anybody see any evidence they got."
Classifying leaks is difficult - it involves some degree of subjectivity, and there's clearly disagreement on how it should be done. Still, as a result of ABC 7 News's reporting, Virginia regulators have indicated they will investigate these matters.