Lubbock, Texas - perhaps best known for native son Buddy Holly and as the home of Texas Tech - is one vote away from becoming the first American city to require an upgraded natural gas tubing, as fire marshals and other officials evaluate requiring higher performance levels for the corrugated stainless steel tubing (CSST) that brings fuel gas into millions of homes.
Earlier this month, the Lubbock City Council voted 6-0 to stop allowing earlier-generations of CSST, in favor of a higher performance standard for CSST.
While used in millions of American homes and prized for ease of flexible installation, the original CSST has come under increasing scrutiny, especially in high-lightning regions like West Texas, for its potential to puncture if lightning strikes nearby or directly hits a building.
In Lubbock, local officials have some CSST manufacturers pushing back, arguing the city is going too far. The issue has come to a sort of showdown.
The measure requires a second vote tomorrow (Thursday, May 12, 2016) and public comments are likely to include industry push-back. Other speculation, unconfirmed at post time, are that some industry representatives will also try to introduce 11th-hour research that could, in part, diminish the recommendations of the Lubbock Special Fuel Gas Committee.
That move could fail to gain momentum, at least in part because the CSST vote comes after years of special citizen committee research, a unanimous recommendation from city staff and its fire marshal. There is even a support letter from the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM), which represents the senior fire officials in the United States and their top deputies.
In an indication of the significance of the Lubbock decision, NASFM tells the city that it has worked in cooperation with the CSST manufacturers over the past four years to raise awareness that yellow CSST needs to be property bonded to improve safety, and that a potential 7 million homeowners may need to hear that warning.
However, the group also notes that "... given our deep, safety driven interest and understanding of CSST and related risks with lightning as well as our review of available research, we feel strongly the minimum standard for arc resistant CSST needs to be elevated. We have spent considerable time and resources to overcome the issues with legacy installations of yellow jacketed CSST and we should take this opportunity to take further steps to ensure better performance of CSST for new installations. To accomplish this, the adopted Lubbock Fuel Gas Code should be raised to ensure a much greater ability of CSST to withstand the energy and related arcing of lightning strikes."
Lubbock, a city not exactly known as embracing government regulation in a state not exactly known for encumbering energy delivery, is not a CSST leader by chance. The city staff, in briefing the council, noted that a recent study showed Lubbock County ranks 5th in Texas in lightning strikes, and that West Texas is a high-lightning region.
What's more, staff noted, the scarcity of trees or topography mean that more lightning is likely to strike structures.
In Lubbock, officials became focused on the issue following the 2012 death of 31-year-old Brennen Teel, an avid hunter and fisherman who happened to be visiting friends on an August afternoon during a lightning storm. The house was struck by lightning, damaging the yellow CSST, which resulted in a gas fire and Teel's death.
The Teel family, through a foundation it established to honor Brennen, has participated in both Texas and national CSST discussions. Just last month Brennen's mother, Becky Tell, used the Lubbock City Council's public comment period to ask why months-old staff recommendations were not being considered. Among other things, she noted the offspring of council members and challenged them, as a fellow parent, if they would do any less in her situation.
In briefing the council, Lubbock staff stressed that the new rules would not include existing CSST installations, but would require those users to upgrade by making sure their systems are properly bonded and grounded. Like other upgrades and leak repairs, this would only happen when gas must be turned on for reasons other than nonpayment of bills.
The council's first vote brought praise from friends of Brennen Teel.
"The city of Lubbock has done a very courageous thing," said Ted Lyon, a Lubbock-area attorney who not only represented the family but used to hunt with Brennon, who was also a friend of Lyon's son.
So, what's "courageous" about improving a fire code?
Lyon says courage is needed amid industry lobbying and what he called "smoke and mirrors" research. He predicted manufacturers will be concerned with both the Lubbock rules and about the message it sends.
Indeed, as the Lubbock Gas Committee was finishing its work, the Council heard from Kent Hance, a Lubbock native, former U.S. Representative and more recently former chancellor of Texas Tech. Telling the city he represented a CSST manufacturer, he cautioned officials about creating a de facto monopoly. Some have noted he included thinly veiled litigation threats.
The manufacturers' concern goes beyond Lubbock, says Lyon. "This will send a shot across the bow of manufacturers"
Imagine this, assuming the City of Lubbock adopts the higher standard for CSST, maybe more manufacturers will finally decide to upgrade their technology that's placed in homes around the country.
Lyon conceded that legal action has pushed reform, but said the Teel family's post-settlement actions were the real push.
"They have done a world of good in memory of their son," said Lyon.
It will take one more vote to see if that "world of good" extends to raising the standard for CSST installed in Lubbock homes, and potentially more Texas communities.