Two explosions, one connection to fired gas leak surveyor

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Local 2 Investigates is uncovering new information about a pair of house explosions that disfigured a little boy and led to the death of a 64-year-old woman.

On New Year's Eve 2011, Giovanni Regalado received a phone call that his then 3-year-old son, Izaiah, was burned in a fire at his mother's house.

"That's when I asked God if he could heal my son," said Regalado. "He was burned from, he was burned everywhere. He did not look like my son."

Izaiah Regalado survived the explosion, but has endured 15 surgeries with more planned in the future. Izaiah lost his fingers, toes and is permanently scarred.

"I mean he's going to have to live all his life like this," said Izaiah 's grandmother, Martha Regalado.

Records filed as part of a lawsuit show a rock rubbing against an underground gas line outside the home produced a crack that led to the leak. Court records read that even though the family did not have gas service at the time, leaking gas from the line crept into the home and ignited.

"This gas literally intruded into their home," said attorney Rob Ammons, who represents the Regalado family.

Ammons said part of his investigation led him to question the work of a CenterPoint leak surveyor by the name of Javier Garza. Ammons said records show Garza checked the gas line outside the family's home the year before the explosion, but reported no leaks.

"If the survey had been done properly this explosion could have been avoided," Ammons claimed.

During a deposition, Garza was repeatedly asked if he remembered conducting the leak survey. According to a transcription of the deposition Garza responded, "No."

Ammons said as the legal process moved forward, he learned Garza's work as a leak surveyor had already been questioned as part of an investigation into another house explosion.

"We recognized there was an issue with the leak surveys," said attorney Daniel Horowitz.

Records filed as part of another lawsuit showed a tree root is believed to have cracked a gas line outside a Pasadena area home in October of 2009. Records filed in the suit read the leak was so large it caused standing rain water in one backyard to bubble. The leaking gas triggered an explosion and fire that led to the death of 64-year-old Dell Miles. Miles daughter, Angela Landry, was permanently injured.

"Things you take for granted, you know, just to write my name. I can't write my name anymore," Landry said during a videotaped statement taken by attorney Daniel Horowitz, who represented the family in the lawsuit.

Horowitz said CenterPoint logs showed Garza was responsible for checking that gas line for leaks just days before the explosion.

"There's just no way that that leak wouldn't have been found," said Horowitz. "I don't believe a leak like that happened overnight."

However, during a videotaped deposition, Garza denied it was his responsibility to check that line.

"No, not me," Garza said during a videotaped deposition.

"It wasn't you?" Horowitz asked.

"No," Garza said.

"We found out later he was not telling the truth," Horowitz said during an interview with Local 2 Investigates.

Horowitz also said when he asked to see the paperwork Garza is required to fill out to prove he conducted a leak survey, he was told someone at CenterPoint "had destroyed it and threw it in the trash."

"I was honestly shocked," said Horowitz.

Unfortunately, none of the questions regarding Garza's work leading up to the 2009 explosion were discovered until just weeks before the 2011 explosion that disfigured Izaiah Regalado.

Records filed as part of the Regalado lawsuit show as soon as CenterPoint discovered these problems, Garza was fired. CenterPoint settled both lawsuits out of court.

"If someone was on point with their job, taking responsibility with what they had to do, none of this would have happened," said Giovanni Regalado.

Local 2 then tried to speak directly with Garza at his home.

"You're aware of the two house explosions, correct? The two explosions at the houses?" asked Local 2 investigator Robert Arnold.

"I don't want to talk to you, I'm sorry," said Garza before closing the door to the home.

CenterPoint officials declined Local 2's request to speak about these explosions on camera.

The company did respond with two written statements.

"While it is the policy of CenterPoint Energy not to comment on the reasons for the departure of a former employee or matters in litigation, the following information is offered in response to your questions.  CenterPoint Energy is resolutely committed to the safe and reliable operation of its natural gas transmission and distribution systems, and is one of the industry leaders in the evaluation of new technology to help enhance this commitment. Through continuous improvements in critical business processes, including incident prevention, inspection and monitoring, and through the modernization of its infrastructure, the Company demonstrates its commitment to safety and reliability on a daily basis. CenterPoint Energy operates over 112,000 miles of natural gas distribution pipe assets, and 700 miles of natural gas transmission assets, and the Company takes the integrity of this infrastructure very seriously, as it does the safety of the customers it serves. To ensure its assets are reliable and safe, CenterPoint Energy spends hundreds of millions of dollars on capital improvements and operating and maintenance expenses each year. In 2013 alone, the Company will spend over $425 million in capital and $640 million in operating and maintenance expenses related to its natural gas transmission and distribution business. Incidents in the natural gas industry are rare, but if an incident occurs, CenterPoint Energy conducts a thorough investigation to determine the cause and takes action as appropriate to address issues identified in the investigation.

"In addition, CenterPoint Energy uses an industry leading odorization protocol, which provides the public with a clear indication of leak issues when they arise. CenterPoint Energy adds odorant to natural gas in a high concentration so that it can be readily detectible long before it presents a safety issue and regularly monitors levels of odorant in the system. These robust odorization practices, in conjunction with regular leak survey and detection programs and an extensive public awareness program on the proper response to a suspected gas leak, are designed to identify suspected leaks in a timely manner. When CenterPoint Energy becomes aware of an inadequate detection of, or response to, a natural gas leak, appropriate remedial action is immediately taken.

"Recently, to further its commitment to infrastructure safety and reliability, CenterPoint Energy has been evaluating a new leak detection technology that could increase leak detection capabilities. This technology was used to evaluate system impacts from the Macy's building implosion in downtown Houston on September 22, 2013. It was also used to verify if any leaks occurred due to a 4.2 magnitude earth quake in east Texas. While still in the trial stage, this technology shows promise, and CenterPoint Energy's pursuit of new technology like this underscores the Company's dedication to safe and reliable natural gas systems."

An additional Centerpoint statement reads, "CenterPoint Energy thoroughly investigated the concerns raised about the actions of the former employee, who left the Company in early 2012. As a precaution, areas that had been assigned to the former employee were re-surveyed and that work was completed almost eighteen months ago. As previously described, CenterPoint Energy continuously monitors the natural gas transmission and distribution system, and safety is our first priority. In addition, the public is urged to call CenterPoint Energy to report any suspected gas leak so that the company can take appropriate action."

If you smell any gas at all walk out of your house and then dial 911 and CenterPoint at 713-659-2111.

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