Bos­ton pipes among old­est in na­tion

Cast-iron gas mains may be fac­tor in ex­plo­sions

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - John Kelly Con­tribut­ing: Kevin McCoy

The Mer­ri­mack Val­ley, the area north of Bos­ton that was shaken by dozens of nat­u­ral gas ex­plo­sions Thurs­day, is served by some of the na­tion’s old­est and most leak-prone pipes.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors have yet to de­ter­mine what caused the gas ex­plo­sions that burned at least 39 homes in the towns of Lawrence, An­dover and North An­dover. But the gas util­ity that serves the area has more miles of old, cast-iron gas mains than all but 15 util­i­ties in the na­tion, ac­cord­ing to a USA TO­DAY anal­y­sis of fed­eral safety data.

In its most re­cent fil­ing with fed­eral pipe­line safety reg­u­la­tors, Columbia Gas re­ported 471 miles of cast-iron and wrought-iron gas dis­tri­bu­tion lines – the kind of old gas pipe that the gov­ern­ment and safety ex­perts have been push­ing util­i­ties to re­place for more than a decade.

Fire in­ves­ti­ga­tors and state emer­gency man­age­ment of­fi­cials said Thurs­day night that the dev­as­tat­ing chain of fires might have been caused by over­pres­sur­iza­tion in the gas lines.

One per­son was killed and at least 10 other peo­ple in­jured in the fires and ex­plo­sions.

What­ever the cause, the area’s baremetal gas mains have been a well-doc­u­mented safety con­cern for gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tors and the Columbia Gas com­pany for years, fed­eral and state records show.

The old cast-iron pipes preva­lent in the Bos­ton-area sys­tems – some in­stalled well over 50 years ago – are sus­cep­ti­ble to rust and cor­ro­sion, which can lead to leaks and ex­plo­sions.

The old pipes have been blamed by fire in­ves­ti­ga­tors and the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board in many deadly gas ex­plo­sion dis­as­ters in re­cent years.

The Pipe­line and Hazardous Ma­te­ri­als Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion has been push­ing gas util­i­ties for more than a decade to re­place aging pipes with more re­silient ma­te­ri­als such as plas­tic, but it’s not re­quired by law.

The gas in­dus­try has re­placed thou­sands of miles of pipe, but a daunt­ing amount of work re­mains. It can cost $1 mil­lion per mile or more to re­place aging pipe. The costs are typ­i­cally passed on to cus­tomers.

The vast ma­jor­ity of the na­tion’s 1,000-plus gas util­i­ties use very lit­tle or none of the most vul­ner­a­ble cast-iron mains. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by USA TO­DAY in 2014 found that the largest share of the old pipe is con­cen­trated in heav­ily pop­u­lated ar­eas, where the risk of cat­a­strophic con­se­quences in greater.

More than 80 per­cent of the cast-iron mains are con­cen­trated in 10 states, mostly in the North­east, ac­cord­ing to a USA TO­DAY re­view of the most re­cent fed­eral safety data, from 2017. About a third of the old mains are buried in and around just three metro ar­eas: New York, Bos­ton and Detroit.

Bos­ton Gas in the metro area and Columbia Gas in the Mer­ri­mack Val­ley com­bine to use more than 2,200 miles of old iron mains. That’s more iron gas pipe than is still in use in 45 other states com­bined.

In its lat­est up­date to its gas line im­prove­ment plan with Mas­sachusetts reg­u­la­tors, Columbia Gas re­ported this spring that its cast-iron and bare-steel gas dis­tri­bu­tion pipes make up about 15 per­cent of its dis­tri­bu­tion network. That’s more than twice the av­er­age that USA TO­DAY cal­cu­lated for nat­u­ral gas util­i­ties na­tion­wide.

In that Gas Sys­tem En­hance­ment Plan pe­ti­tion, the gas com­pany said it had re­placed about 50 miles of “leak prone” gas lines in 2017. The com­pany said it had plans to re­place an­other 500 miles of the aging, leak-prone gas mains – but the work would take un­til 2033.

In April, Columbia Gas ap­plied to Mas­sachusetts’ De­part­ment of Util­i­ties for a rate hike it said would in­crease monthly bills for a typ­i­cal res­i­den­tial cus­tomer by 2.3 per­cent dur­ing win­ter and 11 per­cent dur­ing sum­mer.

The com­pany said it needed the hike to fund “a multi-year ef­fort to con­tin­u­ously im­prove the com­pany’s or­ga­ni­za­tional and op­er­a­tional pro­cesses con­sis­tent with the evolv­ing reg­u­la­tory land­scape fo­cused on more strin­gent en­force­ment of pipe­line-safety reg­u­la­tions to as­sure the in­tegrity of the dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem.”

The ap­pli­ca­tion is wind­ing through the reg­u­la­tory re­view process.

Columbia Gas of Mas­sachusetts re­ported at least 700 known leaks in its sys­tem in 2017, in­clud­ing hun­dreds it deemed hazardous. More than 200 of those were at­trib­uted to cor­ro­sion, failed welds and other prob­lems with the pipes.

Fed­eral data show cast-iron mains his­tor­i­cally have been in­volved in a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of sig­nif­i­cant gas leaks. About 2 per­cent of gas mains are made of cast iron, but they were im­pli­cated in about 11 per­cent of the most se­vere leaks from dis­tri­bu­tion pipes from 2005 to 2017 – and 41 per­cent of the fatal­i­ties.

A cast-iron gas main in­stalled in 1927 was blamed for a Brook­lyn apart­ment build­ing ex­plo­sion in Jan­uary that in­jured four peo­ple.

In 2016, a gas pipe in­stalled in Shreve­port, Louisiana, in 1911 leaked un­der pres­sure, killing one per­son.

In 2015, a cast-iron pipe from 1923 in the Detroit area cracked al­most in two; the re­sult­ing leak killed one per­son.

And in one of the dead­li­est in­ci­dents in re­cent years, eight peo­ple were killed and 48 in­jured when a gas ex­plo­sion lev­eled part of a New York City block in East Har­lem in 2014. The iron gas main ser­vic­ing the build­ings was in­stalled in 1887.

Util­i­ties in com­mu­ni­ties in older parts of the coun­try, es­pe­cially in the North­east and Mid­west, face a more dif­fi­cult task in re­plac­ing their aging mains than else­where.

Pipes in crowded cities are harder to retro­fit be­cause the cost and dis­rup­tion to ev­ery­day life is greater.

Flames con­sume a house Thurs­day in Lawrence, Mass., a sub­urb north of Bos­ton, amid a se­ries of nat­u­ral gas ex­plo­sions that burned at least 39 homes. WCVB VIA AP

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