The natural gas pipeline in the United States is vast, sprawling across 2.5 million miles in a complex pressurized system that delivers a quarter of the energy consumed nationwide, according to the American Gas Association. Many of the pipes are old, and utilities are in various stages of replacing them to improve safety.
There have been more than 300 fatalities and 1,200 injuries caused by natural gas pipeline incidents in the last 20 years, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency responsible for overseeing the industry. As residents recover from Thursday’s stunning explosions in Lawrence, Mass., many wonder what they can do to protect themselves.
A series of fiery natural gas explosions three towns north of Boston killed a teenager, injured at least 25 others and left dozens of homes in smouldering ruins. The cause is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, but the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency said the fires may have resulted from gas lines that had become over-pressurized.
Following fatal gas pipeline incidents, the Department of Transportation in 2011 called on the industry to replace aging pipelines, particularly those made of cast and wrought iron and bare steel that pose the highest risk.
More than 177 million people nationwide use natural gas in their homes and businesses to provide heat, cook and dry clothes, according to the American Gas Association. Columbia Gas — the company whose pipelines exploded Thursday — and its parent company NiSource serve 3.4 million natural gas customers across seven Eastern states.
HOW IS NATURAL GAS DISTRIBUTED?
Natural gas is a fossil fuel found deep beneath the earth’s surface that’s mostly made up of methane. It is extracted from the ground and distributed in pipelines that span 2.5 million miles nationwide.
The gas is delivered to customers initially through high-pressure pipelines and it goes through a process to reduce its pressure before entering smaller pipelines and eventually homes and businesses.
“In some places, we have 100-year-old gas lines coming up to people’s houses,” said Bob Ackley, owner of Gas Safety, Inc., a Massachusetts-based company.
WHEN HAVE THERE BEEN SIMILAR EXPLOSIONS?
In February, gas-related fires in Dallas killed a 12-year-old girl, destroyed three residences and injured others. A review by the National Transportation Safety Board later found that several sections of pipe near the incident site failed pressure tests.
A gas explosion in 2014 killed eight people in New York City, and the utility Consolidated Edison later …read more