Gas Pipeline Explosion in Harlem Sheds Light on Outdated Pipelines

gas home explosionThere was a major gas leak explosions that shook East Harlem about a week ago, leveling two five-story apartment buildings.  The death toll has risen to 8 now, with over 60 people sustaining injuries of various degrees. The explosion occurred at about 9:30 am on Wednesday, about 15 minutes after a neighboring resident called Con Edison utility to report the smell of gas.

Con Edison sent a crew immediately, but they didn’t make it in time. The explosion shattered windows a block away, cast a skyline of smoke and dumped debris onto elevated commuter railroad tracks close by. It also sent people running into the streets.

Displaced resident carried their belongings from behind barricades of what looked like a war zone. Fire rescue workers are working to remove the remainder of debris so that they can make their way into the basement where they expect to learn more about how the blast occurred.

Testing and Investigation into the Cause are Underway

Friday, Con Edison pressure-tested natural gas lines in the area. Officials said tests done after the explosion found high concentrations of gas in the ground, where there should not be any. This further leads them to believe this was more than likely a gas leak explosion.

The main line that is suspected to have the leak, if there is one, runs along Park and is made of 8-inch cast iron with half-inch-thick walls. It was installed in 1887, but officials say that age should not matter if it has been maintained properly.

A National Transportation Safety Board team arrived in the evening to investigate. The agency investigates pipeline accidents in addition to transportation disasters. They would be investigation Con Edison to see how they handle reports of gas odors and issues with pipe. They will be constructing a timeline as part of the investigation.

Utility Companies Facing Difficult Problem

Gas Utility companies have been grappling with the question of what to do about aging natural gas mains. They are in difficult to access locations in older, urban areas, and have deteriorated and become prone to leaking. Many of them date back to before WWII.

Older cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago have the highest number of cast iron mains and higher-than-average rates of “unaccounted for” gas. Although some scientists say this should be cause for concern, gas industry officials disagree claiming this is caused from the equipment that does the testing. (See related graphic.)

35% of Chicago’s gas mains are constructed of outdated cast iron, and 1.9% of its gas unaccounted for (meaning it has probably leaked into the air…) See this graphic from National Geographic for information about gas mains at risk  in other U.S. cities.


Though pipeline safety has increased over the past couple of decades, incidents still cause an average of 17 fatalities and $133 million in property damage annually, according to a study by Duke University. They deployed a car with a Spectrometer inside and drove 1500 road miles of Washington D.C., mapping 5893 natural gas leaks.

Dangerous, Potentially Explosive Areas Exist

At 19 test locations, 12 potentially explosive concentrations of methane were detected in manholes. Financial incentives and targeted programs among companies, public utility commissions, and scientists, Duke Researchers say, are needed to reduce leaks. Old cast iron pipes need to be replaced to improve consumer safety and air quality, save money and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly, much can be done to address this before there are more fatalities.

Utilities have replaced most of the old iron infrastructure over the past several decades. However, experts say there is nearly 46,000 miles of iron mains and service lines to individual homes still in place. Even though only 2.6 percent of the nation’s distribution lines are still made of cast iron, 11 percent of the incidents that caused accidents and fatalities involved cast-iron pipes. If you live in an older city that could possible contain cast-iron pipes, reach out to your utility company and find out what is being done about it. If you ever smell gas, don’t wait until it’s too late to report it. Call immediately to have it checked out.