Explosive findings about thousands of gas leaks in Chicago area

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation
The I-Team investigated the dangers of gas leaks that could be in your neighborhood after a massive gas explosion caused neighbors to raise questions about their safety.

911 caller: "My neighbor's house just blew up."

That was a call about a blast that shook a Homer Glen neighborhood in December, badly burning a father and his 12-year-old daughter inside a home.

"I think they probably should have told people to leave sooner than they did," said Char Mcatee, a neighbor.

Mcatee said she thinks their injuries could have been prevented. She and an attorney representing the victims said there were no evacuations until after the blast, but Mcatee and other neighbors said they reported a strong scent of natural gas to Nicor several hours before the explosion.

911 caller:
"There has been a gas leak on the street so that's probably why."

"Do you know if Nicor was in the area there?"

911 caller:
"Yes, I think they are right down the street."

Residents said Nicor crews were investigating the leak, which was believed to be several houses down from the home that eventually exploded.

"We are focused on safety first. Safety of our people, our pipelines and the public," said Nicor.

The Illinois Commerce Commission is investigating the incident, along with 10 other explosions or major incidents involving different utilities in 2016.

"Everybody across the board is concerned about potential natural gas explosions," said Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Madigan has been highly critical of Peoples Gas, which she said should be doing more to address leaks as it upgrades its 100 year old system.

"Are the oldest, most dangerous, potentially leaky pipes being prioritized?" she asked.

Peoples Gas said its response time to gas leaks meets or exceeds industry standards and that consumers are never at risk.

But the I-Team uncovered records of thousands of gas leaks in the Chicago area.

The most recent 2015 report from the government's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said Peoples Gas had more than 1,200 "hazardous" leaks, and Nicor had almost 6,300 in the same category.

Both utilities said the leaks were eliminated and the ICC said hazardous leaks are addressed promptly. That report also showed Nicor had an additional 8,985 leaks, which were not fixed by the end of 2015; Nicor called them "non-hazardous" and said they were scheduled for repair and regularly monitored.

The Citizen's Utility Board criticized both utilities for not using what's known as "methane mapping," seen in an Environmental Defense Fund video, which claims to have found 349 Peoples Gas leaks.

"They found hundreds of leaks, undetected leaks of methane," said Jim Chilsen of the CUB. "Their concern is that not only is this a hit on our pocket books but it's also a hit on the environment."

Peoples Gas said the costs of this new technology outweigh the benefits and said it was only able to confirm 10 of the leaks, but the Environmental Defense Fund stands behind its findings.

Nicor said it has its own ongoing efforts to modernize its infrastructure, which contribute to safety.

But in recent months residents in Palos Hills and South Elgin have called the I-Team about what they call ongoing Nicor gas leaks, saying those issues weren't fixed until the I-Team got involved.

Back in Homer Glen, the attorney representing the burn victims filed an emergency motion asking all evidence from the levels home to be saved. The attorney said both father and daughter are at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, talking and functioning.

State and federal law prioritizes when leaks need to be fixed based on how severe or dangerous the leak is. Some must be fixed within hours, others can go months without being fixed.

Both utilities urge consumers to report leaks, especially if you smell a rotten egg odor. To report a Nicor gas leak call 888-Nicor4U, representatives are available 24-hours a day. For more information on People's Gas, visit their website.
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