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Harlem Blast Makes Sad Prophet of BU Researcher

Nathan Phillips on what we must do to fix decrepit gas lines

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A gas leak that left at least seven dead and dozens injured or missing in Harlem earlier this month has given Nathan Phillips’ research a tragically prophetic hue. For years, the College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment has crisscrossed the road grids of major American cities, documenting thousands of leaks in the country’s aging gas lines (3,300 in Boston alone).

Phillips has warned that the worst of these gas geysers pose explosion risks. In the case of the Harlem leak, residents had smelled gas for weeks. The blast leveled two buildings and reverberated more than a mile away. New York utility company Con Edison said it had repaired the only reported leak on the block last May and found no leaks during a survey in February. US Senator Edward Markey (Hon.’04) (D-Mass.) has proposed legislation to fast-track repairs to leaking gas lines.

Gas leaks also contribute to climate change, cost ratepayers millions, and kill or damage countless trees in urban areas, Phillips says. Utilities scramble to fix the worst leaks, but must prioritize repairs, given the Swiss-cheese holes in pipes, says Phillips, who discussed the situation—including the potential danger in our nation’s capital, where he looked for leaks last year—with BU Today.

BU Today: Have you ever hunted for gas leaks in New York City?

Phillips: I have not personally, but my research collaborator, Bob Ackley, has, using our BU sniffer. There are definitely leaks there, associated with old cast iron and bare steel pipes. The pipe that exploded in Harlem was eight-inch cast iron from 1887, according to news reports.

Does the Harlem explosion and the resulting deaths make the need to repair leaking lines even more critical than you thought?

Yes. This was the kind of tragic failure that unfortunately often is the kind of event it takes to spur concerted action and awareness of gas safety.

Boston University BU, city gas leaks, Nathan Phillips research

Gas leaks, like the one blamed for the Harlem explosion this month, have been the subject of CAS scholar Nathan Phillips’ research. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Do you think the Harlem blast will in fact spur action on fixing lines? Or as with similar previous tragedies, will this fade from the headlines and public awareness?

I am hopeful that we are moving in the direction of solving the issue of gas leaks and all their ramifications, rather than just slipping back into complacency. And I feel that there are factors that will make progress stick. These include the mapping technology that we have used to make this issue known to the public at large, a technology that is only increasing in its use across cities and towns and over time. The cat is out of the bag with sensing and mapping gas leaks, and this will put increasing pressure on us to address the problem.

More broadly, I am hopeful that as our cities become “smarter,” we will develop coordination in our attention to our critically interdependent infrastructures, what we call our “infrastructure ecology.” Information technology increasingly allows us to monitor, coordinate, and harmonize how we manage and repair our systems of water, sewer, gas, electricity, and roadwork. We have the ability to surgically and at the same time, holistically, address our city infrastructure, like the amazing strides medicine has made in treating the human body. The barriers are largely ones of political ecology, not technology. Agencies and institutions—utilities, public works departments—need to connect and cooperate to harmonize how infrastructure works.

Does this tragedy suggest that utility companies can’t be counted on to solve this problem without public subsidies and/or mandates to fix the infrastructure?

The utilities are surely a major player, but it is too easy to point the finger solely at this one entity. We live in aging cities, and that is no one’s fault; it’s just a fact. The pipelines that run under our streets and sidewalks are an issue that the public needs to confront and address, and put some level of skin in the game, including, potentially, financial. Right now the incentives need to be better aligned to promote the utilities to also put more skin in the game. The costs associated with lost and unaccounted-for gas have been passed along to consumers. If utilities don’t bear any costs for leaks, they have no real incentive to fix them. In part resulting from our work in Boston, state and federal legislation has been proposed to align these incentives.

You probed for leaks last year in Washington, D.C. How many did you find and how severe were they?

In D.C., we found the situation is the same, if not more severe, than Boston. The number of leaks was almost 6,000, which is about the same as Boston’s 3,300-odd leaks, when considering the road miles are about the same in leaks per mile. If anything, D.C. had higher values of air concentration of natural gas.

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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