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Aging Natural Gas Infrastructure Suspected in Deadly NYC Explosion

A repair crew was en route to investigate a complaint of gas odor when the two five-story, one-hundred-year-old buildings in East Harlem exploded, killing seven with eight still missing as of press time. Leaking cast iron pipelines may be to blame.
March 14, 2014, 6am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Aging, cast iron pipes carry much of New York City's natural gas to buildings. Earlier in the week, "a report from the Center for an Urban Future found many items such as water mains, subways, roads and public buildings, in need of serious repair," writes Alec Hamilton.

On WNYC, Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the center, appears as a guest. 

"So when you first heard about the explosion..., did your mind immediately go to aging infrastructure?", asks the moderator.

"It really did," Bowles replies. However, he adds that "it's rare that aging infrastructure leads to disaster on this scale but some parts of the city's gas system aren't in good shape," writes Hamilton.

"There's a ton of cast iron gas mains all over the city, and they're not leading to these kind of disasters every day or every week" he said, "But there are a lot of leaks."

"The report found that more than half of the city's gas lines are made up of cast iron or unprotected steel—the most leak-prone material," writes Hamilton, adding that replacing it woud be an exorbitant cost: "$2 million to $8 million per mile and more than a thousand miles under ConEd's portfolio."

However, fines for preventable explosions caused by leaking gas pipelines can be exorbitant as well. Take the San Bruo, Calif. explosion in 2010 that killed eight, for example. Last year, PG&E agreed to pay $565 million to victims. 

However, that's in addition to a $2.25-billion penalty proposed by the California Public Utilities Commission, "but the San Francisco-based utility claims the true cost to its shareholders would approach $4 billion," according to ENR California.  

Bowles tells WNYC that it's "probably not realistic to expect" all those cast iron pipelines to be replaced, "but we do think there could be an acceleration of the replacement of these gas mains." Furthermore, he emphasizes the importance of alerting the utility immediately when the odor of natural gas is detected.

The Brian Lehrer Show has Thursday coverage on the explosion and a Tuesday interview (before the explosion) of onathan Bowles and the Center for Urban Futures report.

For an image of the original tenements that had a church and a piano store on the ground levels and a photo gallery and video of the scene of the explosion, see the New York Times article.

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Published on Thursday, March 13, 2014 in WNYC
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