Published November 30, 2012
Two devastating explosions this month alone, one blast in Massachusetts that leveled a multi-story building and another deadly explosion in an Indiana neighborhood, remind us of the power and potential danger of natural gas.
Now a new study released by Boston University reveals there are more than 3,300 natural gas leaks across Boston, raising concerns that one of America's oldest cities faces great challenges regarding its aging infrastructure and an increased risk of explosions.
"Our study is not something in which people should run out and be panicking over an imminent chance of an explosion," Professor Nathan Phillips, from Boston University's Department of Earth and Environment, said. "But, as I say, these situations, they may be rare but when they do happen they can have big impacts and therefore it's not something we can just ignore. If something was a low probability and low or zero impact we can ignore it but if it's low probability but high impact we need to be careful about it."
While the majority of the leaks were small, Professor Phillips and his team found six locations where the gas levels were potentially high enough to cause an explosion. They were repaired right away.
Phillips says Boston is not alone, and that many historic cities across the nation face similar risks.
"We didn't know when we started this whether there were hundreds of leaks or dozens of leaks but we found over three-thousand of these leaks, so it's a pervasive problem throughout the city of Boston and we know that it's beyond Boston into many aging cities," Phillips, who believes a stronger partnership is needed between government, utilities and residents to more quickly address and fix aging pipes, said. "The hidden infrastructure, the stuff below ground needs as much attention as the stuff that we can see and it is an aging infrastructure in many cities and the world."
In the wake of the study's release state officials are working to reassure the public that the leaks do not pose a safety risk.
"The leaks he's talking about are what are called grade three leaks which are really tiny, tiny leaks so they are not a risk of explosion," Ann Berwick, the Chair of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, said. "They are also tiny leaks that are not migrating, so no- they don't cause a risk of explosion."
Berwick agrees that many older communities face challenges when it comes to infrastructure.
"This is a problem in the Northeast and in some other parts of the country as well. There's aging infrastructure. It's not just the electrical and gas infrastructure but it's highways and so obviously infrastructure is an issue for all of us," said Berwick. She says many of the gas companies across the state are aggressively working to replace corroded pipes and says the state offers incentives to ensure the work is steady.
"We are moving forward to allow the companies, the gas companies, accelerated cost recovery for replacing aging infrastructure," she said.
One of the largest gas suppliers in the state, National Grid, says their number one priority is public safety. Company officials say operators are on call around the clock and respond to every call, addressing those that present risk immediately.
National Grid released a statement reading in part, "We routinely inspect and monitor our system for structural soundness. We have ongoing inspection, maintenance and gas main replacement programs. In the past three years we have replaced approximately 300 miles of leak prone gas mains and we are on target to replace an additional 150 miles this year."
They say they're taking a long term approach to leak management with the best interest of the public and the environment in mind.