The Investigators: MLGW customers pay for millions of dollars in damages to utility lines

The utility company doesn’t track who hits their underground pipes or who has paid.

Customers pay for thousands of damages to MLGW pipes

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Broken gas lines and water mains not only pose a danger to those living and working nearby, they are also costly.

Over the past five years, Memphis Light, Gas and Water customers have paid millions to repair underground pipes.

When a third-party, like a homeowner or private contractor, hits an MLGW gas line or water main during a dig or through some other circumstance, the person or party responsible is supposed to pay for the repair.

The WMC Action News 5 Investigators discovered that the utility company is not keeping track of who owes what, which leaves ratepayers footing the bill.

According to data provided by MLGW, 2,681 gas lines and water mains were damaged between January 2015 and September 2019.

The damage was caused by weather, age or human error.

The total cost to repair those pipes is $4,956,888.41.

Since third parties are supposed to pick up the repair costs for the damage they’ve caused, the Investigators went to MLGW to ask how the utility collects on those bills.

“If they cause underground damage and we know who they are then MLGW is going do its best to collect,” said Gale Jones-Carson, vice president of External and Community Affairs for MLGW. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

Carson said MLGW offers payment plans for those who cannot pay upfront.

“We try to work with some of customers because some don't have the big dollars to pay on the front end but then there are some who do and they do pay right away,” she said.

WMC wanted to know how many people are on those payment plans. Carson didn’t have an answer during our interview.

But in a follow-up email, she wrote: “We have no way to run a list of everyone who is on a payment plan for claims or damages.”

Carson also told us if someone refuses to pay, MLGW can file a lawsuit to recover the costs.

“Memphis Light, Gas and Water does its due diligence, we do go to court and we try to collect on damaged utilities,” she said.

Millions owed for MLGW line breaks

When we asked how many lawsuits have been filed in order to collect, a spokesperson wrote in an email that they could not "run a list" to get that information.

Data we obtained from MLGW shows out of the $4.9 million in damages, $398,650.57 has been collected.

We wanted to know how much is still owed by third parties.

In another email, Carson wrote: “We don’t maintain a document that reflects this information.”

We then asked if MLGW tracks who is and isn't damaging their equipment.

In another email, Carson wrote: “We don’t maintain a document that lists everyone who has damaged a certain type of equipment.”

“That's not a sufficient answer,” said District 5 Councilman Worth Morgan. “This is records management 101. We ought to be able to keep track of this and know exactly where we are.”

Morgan is chairman of the City Council MLGW committee.

“My first emotion is anger and second would be frustration,” Morgan told the Investigators. “If there are deficiencies, if there are things that aren’t going well, we should be able to look at it and improve upon them rather than saying ‘we don’t know’.”

We gave Morgan a spreadsheet that MLGW provided when we asked for a list of all water mains and gas lines damaged in 2019.

The sheet shows the location and date but when it comes to who is responsible the answer isn’t always clear.

“Thank you for the spreadsheet. This is the first time I've seen it as well. There's a lot of information on this sheet. It's dense,” he said. “But there's a lot of information that's not on here including prices and estimates and repair costs. Those are things I'd like to see as well.”

The Investigators checked if other municipalities track water main and gas line damage.

For instance – the City of Germantown.

Just before rush hour Sept. 24, 2019, a subcontractor working for Verizon hit a water main maintained by the City of Germantown at the intersection of Poplar and West Farmington Boulevard.

Traffic was slowed for hours.

3J Construction, a Maryland-based company, was responsible for the water main break. A Germantown spokesperson wrote in an email that 3J’s insurance paid the city $50,393.78 for the repairs.

Three weeks before that water main break, 3J Construction hit an MLGW water main on North Germantown Parkway while working on the same project.

3J’s owner told us over the phone that his company didn't have to pay for the damage.

When we emailed MLGW to confirm, a spokesperson wrote: “This is an ongoing investigation and liability has yet to be determined.”

Morgan said he would follow up with MLGW to get answers we could not.

“I really do appreciate the work y'all have done on this,” he said. “It's disappointing how difficult it's been for you to get answers. I'm going to try to get answers myself. We'll do it in committee and make it a public affair.”

Morgan did bring up third-party damages in a recent MLGW committee meeting but new information has not come to light.

The Investigators also learned when the City of Memphis damages an MLGW gas or water line, the city does not pay for those repairs per an arrangement with the utility company.

Morgan said that does not sound like a good policy and that he would look into that as well.

This data, from MLGW, shows the damages, repair costs and amounts paid or owed between 2015 and September 2019.

Year: 2015

  • Number of damaged gas lines/water mains: 658
  • Total cost of repair: $1,295,405.18
  • Amount paid: $144,231.18
  • Amount owed: $1,151,174.00

Year: 2016

  • Number of damaged gas lines/water mains: 721
  • Total cost of repair: $1,357,988.99
  • Amount paid: $125,133.36
  • Amount owed: $1,232,855.63

Year: 2017

  • Number of damaged gas lines/water mains: 484
  • Total cost of repair: $821,957.42
  • Amount paid: $69,734.55
  • Amount owed: $752,222.87

Year: 2018

  • Number of damaged gas lines/water mains: 579
  • Total cost of repair: $992,640.86
  • Amount paid: $58,489.29
  • Amount owed: $934,151.57

Year: 2019 (as of September)

  • Number of damaged gas lines/water mains: 239
  • Total cost to repair: $488,895.96
  • Amount paid: $1,062.19
  • Amount owed: $487,833.77

Total: 2015 - September 2019

  • Total number of damaged gas lines/water mains: 2,681
  • Total cost to repair: $4,956,888.41
  • Amount paid: $398,650.57

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