The mother of a Texas man killed in a 2012 house fire flew into Lubbock last week, headed to a city council meeting she once hoped would usher in long-recommended fire-safety reforms inspired by her son's death.
Instead, Becky Teel got three minutes of public comment time.
Shortly after her son, Brennen Teel, died, local officials blamed the fatal blaze on a controversial natural gas pipe called CSST, for "corrugated stainless steel tubing," and declared a moratorium on its use. CSST is a type of flexible pipe, either yellow or black, used in millions of American homes and valued for its ease of use and for withstanding earthquakes.
However, the tubing has also been associated with hundreds of fires blamed on its vulnerability to lightning. Nationally, there has been a massive industry-funded educational campaign led by the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) to tell anyone using CSST, especially "yellow" varieties, to make sure it's properly bonded.
Trust me, Google-search "CSST dangers" and you'll hurry to comply with that advice.
A special Lubbock committee took a long look at the issue and made unanimous recommendations last fall, but so far the council has not acted on the recommendations and the moratorium remains in place. At their regular meeting, Becky Teel told the Lubbock council that she bought her plane ticket "months ago" when she thought there would be a vote on CSST reforms, but decided to make the trip up from Dallas anyway. The city's attorney cut off discussion, reminding officials that they could not really discuss her comments without a formal agenda item.
Still, she made the most of her minutes.
"I don't stand here with deep pockets, political aspirations or bottom lines; I come here as a mom who lost a son in your city," she said, adding that she'd rather be introducing her son instead of the CSST-safety foundation named after him.
While Mrs. Teel failed to get a credible response from the city, she's not alone in wondering what's holding things up.
"We really would like to see it go forward," said Steve O'Neil, Lubbock's chief building official, of the new "more safe" regulations, which are part of a more comprehensive building code update.
Asked what the holdup was, he said "I wish I could tell you... it's all ready to go."
Heck, maybe they should have just asked Kim Davis.
Davis is founder and owner of Nomiss Communications, a newly hired Lubbock-based media contact for Omega Flex, one of several big multi-national companies that have been focused on the Lubbock CSST policy, in part because it might set precedence for other jurisdictions. (Omega Flex was not involved in Brennen Teel's death or resulting litigation.)
Davis says city officials have told her the code changes are not going to be considered anytime soon, and she speculated that was because of a busy political season and code changes being a low priority. She also confirmed that Kent R. Hance, a politically connected former United States Congressman and, until 2014, the chancellor of the Lubbock-based Texas Tech University system, has recently joined the Omega Flex team.
Hance is perhaps best known nationally for being the only person to ever defeat former President George W. Bush in an election.
More specifically, Davis explained, the Austin-based Hance Scarborough law firm has been hired to conduct "a study" of CSST, presumably using engineers and safety experts. That study would join both longstanding attorney-supported research that been used by reformers, not to mention the city's own research and review of industry testing by the special gas committee.
(I've written before about how the CSST issue is an example of victim's attorneys pushing for reform; some of the research can be found here: www.cssttesting.org.)
O'Neil, the building official, said the city's investigation led them to allow only one type of CSST, a black-coated variety with a special jacket, similar to the system that protects airplanes, that meets what's called the "1027 standard." Lubbock's new regulations, O'Neil said, would only allow LC 1027-compliant CSST.
One controversy, he added, is that only one of the several national CSST companies currently makes the 1027-standard CSST (not Omega Flex). So the industry has concerns of a short-term local monopoly situation, although black iron pipe, which has also long been used as a competitor to the flexible gas tubing, is still being used in market.
According to O'Neil, the safer CSST costs "pennies per foot" more than the lesser varieties.
Lubbock concerns might become precedent-setting, but they are not alone. For example, Wichita, Kansas TV station KWCH recently noted the Lubbock moratorium while reporting that one type of CSST, identified by its yellow covering, "... is banned in some parts of Kansas as well, including Wichita, El Dorado and Sedgwick County. Those jurisdictions will not allow the product to be used in new installations."
And state fire marshals that help set the U.S. agenda for local fire codes are getting into the act.
Just this month, the NASFM - the fire marshals group which has long worked with CSST manufacturers on the yellow CSST safety campaign - went on record favoring an upgrade to the higher LC 1027 standard. Jim Narva, Executive Director, NASFM, stated in a press release, "In anticipation of Spring, where lightning risk for homeowners becomes more prominent, flexible gas piping continues to be an area of concern for some homeowners. With safety being paramount, NASFM will advocate for the improvement of the performance standard."
What is clear is that Lubbock, the hometown of Buddy Holly and Mac Davis, may still be singing the lead on CSST, but officials should not continue to mess with a Texas mom. Communities in Kansas, Oklahoma and other high-lightening states are following the Lubbock example and, at least in that, Mrs. Teel can take some comfort.
(Sara Warner is publisher of the California Courts Monitor website, "Your Daily Ration of Civil Justice Rationing," and a frequent commentator on national legal policy and civil courts issues. National Courts Monitor researchers and producers contributed to this report.)