The recent gas explosion that brought down two buildings in East Harlem highlights problems with the safety of the pipes that transport natural gas – a growing source of fuel throughout the United States. Even as the use of natural gas becomes even more widespread because of the development of shale gas, questions are being raised about the aging infrastructure that brings the gas to consumers. The gas lines connected to the two Harlem buildings were constructed in 1887.
Sadly, the tragedy in East Harlem is not the only explosion that has made the news in recent years. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor tells the story of other cities where aging or inadequate pipelines caused explosions that resulted in injury and death throughout the country. In 2010, a pipeline exploded in Northern California, killing 9 and destroying 38 homes.
In 2011, a cast-iron pipe in Philadelphia blew up, killing a utility worker and injuring three others. A similar explosion in Allentown, Pennsylvania, killed five. Another explosion occurred in West Virginia in 2012. NTSB investigators noted that the way pipes had been installed contributed to the corrosion that resulted in the gas leak.
Although the age of pipes in the countries older cities is of concern, even more distressing is the failure of utilities to inspect the aging infrastructure. For example, the pipeline in West Virginia had not been inspected since 1988 when it exploded.
ConEd says it is moving as quickly as possible to replace its New York City aging pipeline. However, it estimates that even working at top speed, it will take 20 years and cost at least $100 million annually. New pipelines will not only prevent explosions caused by corroding pipes. The new pipes will also have shut-off valves that can contain leaks that do develop. Had shut-off valves been in place in Northern California, the 2010 explosion would have been much less damaging.
The natural gas industry is riding high at present. Gas is now seen as a way to reduce our reliance on oil and coal and limit the environmental damage these fuels cause. However, the industry must get control of pipeline safety issues that affect workplace safety and the general public alike if we are to avoid more disasters like the explosion in Harlem.