Old, leaky gas lines lurk below U.S. cities | MNN


The U.S. natural gas boom remains to be going sturdy, thanks largely to fracking of the Marcellus Shale under Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Fuel now represents nearly a third of all power produced within the U.S., and it is anticipated to succeed in 40 % within the 2040s.

A lot of this fuel strikes across the nation in a patchwork of pipelines totaling 2.47 million miles, or about 99 occasions the circumference of the Earth. Most are hidden underground, and whereas their security file has improved in current many years, numerous getting old pipelines nonetheless secretly leak fuel. This not solely wastes cash and pollutes the air with methane, but in addition raises the danger of harmful ruptures and explosions. On common, troubled U.S. fuel pipelines trigger 17 deaths, 68 accidents and $133 million in property injury yearly.

A new study spotlights this menace within the nation’s capital, the place researchers drove round final yr in a automotive outfitted with a spectrometer to detect methane and ethane. They discovered greater than 5,800 pipeline leaks whereas overlaying all 1,500 miles of highway in Washington, D.C., and infrequently lowered probes by means of manholes to research excessive readings.

There isn’t any proof any of the leaks posed a direct hazard to public well being or security, however a dozen of the manhole exams did reveal methane ranges as excessive as 500,000 elements per million of pure fuel — roughly 10 occasions the focus wanted to gasoline an explosion.

The researchers reported the worst leaks to Washington Fuel, the native utility, after their preliminary exams final February. However upon returning 4 months later for follow-up exams, they had been “shocked” to seek out 9 of the 12 leaks nonetheless emitting unsafe ranges of methane, in response to lead writer and Duke College environmental scientist Robert Jackson. (Washington Fuel is within the midst of a $28 million, seven-year program to improve its pipeline connections and change cast-iron elements with extra sturdy plastic.)

“Repairing these leaks will enhance air high quality, enhance shopper well being and security, and get monetary savings,” Jackson says in a statement in regards to the examine, which was printed Jan. 16 within the journal Environmental Science & Expertise. “Pipeline security has been bettering over the past 20 years. Now could be the time to make it even higher.”

The researchers reported related points final yr in Boston, together with greater than three,300 pipeline leaks under 785 miles of highway. “The typical density of leaks we mapped within the two cities is comparable, however common methane concentrations are larger in Washington,” says Boston College professor Nathan Phillips, who labored on each research.

Washington and Boston are hardly alone of their fuel pains. Whereas 95 % of U.S. fuel traces are low-pressure plastic pipes that deal with native distribution — thus posing a decrease explosion danger — massive, steel transmission traces are a special story. Many U.S. cities nonetheless depend on decades-old fuel infrastructure which may be vulnerable to leaks or ruptures, particularly if it is produced from forged iron or predates the usage of cathodic safety to struggle corrosion. The fuel pipeline that rocked a California neighborhood with a lethal fireball in 2010, for instance, was greater than 50 years previous and had suffered lapses of inspection.

San Bruno pipeline explosion

Harm from a lethal 2010 fuel principal blast in San Bruno, Calif. (Picture: Justin Sullivan/Getty Photographs)

Such explosions are uncommon, nonetheless, and most leaked fuel from pipelines disperses into the air earlier than reaching harmful ranges. However that is nonetheless unhealthy, since methane is a potent greenhouse fuel, able to trapping extra warmth than carbon dioxide, and may react with daylight and different gases to kind poisonous ground-level ozone. Pipeline leaks signify the biggest artifical supply of methane emissions within the U.S., and contribute to some $three billion in misplaced pure fuel annually. As much as 38,000 liters of methane wafted up every day from simply 4 of the street-level leaks in Washington, the examine’s authors be aware, which is akin to the quantity of pure fuel utilized by two to seven households.

There’s some momentum in Congress to hurry up the modernization of U.S. fuel traces, together with two payments launched in November that will create federal incentives to melt the expense of repairing and changing outdated pipelines. “We have to put the appropriate monetary incentives in place,” Jackson says. “Firms and public utility commissions need assistance to repair leaks and change previous forged iron pipes extra shortly.”

Within the meantime, you may study extra about pipelines in your state from knowledge supplied by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Supplies Security Administration. And though native distribution traces are much less prone to corrode and explode, plastic remains to be susceptible to shovels, so it is sensible to examine pipeline areas by calling the national 811 hotline earlier than you dig.

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