Natural gas explosions have been making headlines recently, raising questions about public safety and concerns about their increasing frequency and causes.
On Tuesday, a massive natural gas explosion occurred in Sissonville, West Virginia, destroying four homes and causing significant damage to at least five others. There were no fatalities.
The source of the explosion was a 20-inch gas transmission pipeline owned by Columbia Gas. Witnesses said the explosion sounded like a plane crash. The fire burned so hot that it damaged a section of Interstate 77, forcing its closure. Guardrails along the highway melted while utility poles burned, and debris was scattered across a wide area. A cause has not yet been determined.
The explosion in West Virginia is just one in a recent series of gas explosions that have occurred across the country. From California to Indianapolis to Massachusetts and now West Virginia, the rash of explosions and fires continues. Are these explosions the result of an aging pipeline system and/or human error, or is there something else going on?
Investigators in Springfield, Massachusetts, the site of a huge natural gas explosion that injured 18 people and damaged 42 structures on November 23rd, say the cause of that explosion was “human error.” In Indianapolis, where two people died on November 10 as a result of a massive natural gas explosion which caused approximately $4.4 million in damages, investigators have shifted their focus to homicide, citing “remote detonation” as the leading theory of how the blast occurred. No suspects have been named, however.
And while these high-profile stories are capturing headlines, a report by NaturalGasWatch.org indicates that these types of leaks and explosions occur on a regular basis. On December 1, a natural gas transmission pipeline owned by Pacific Gas & Electric ruptured near Stockton, California, forcing residents from their homes. A cause has not been determined.
On November 30, a family in Crawfordsville, Indiana, was forced to leave their home after a natural gas leak. Investigators identified a gas transmission pipeline as the source of that leak.
In Cowley County, Kansas, a “significant” natural gas leak “forced a five-hour road closure” on November 28. Investigators have not yet determined the source of that leak.
A “massive” gas leak forced the “evacuation of area residents in Richmond, Virginia, on November 27.” Although the cause of the leak has not been determined, it supposedly “occurred when an aging natural gas line ruptured.”
On November 21, an explosion destroyed one home and damaged another in Newark, New Jersey. Although a cause has not been determined, natural gas was “reportedly to blame.”
There were two natural gas explosions on November 20. One occurred at a natural gas processing facility near Price, Utah, damaging several buildings and critically injuring two workers. Investigators blame a “spike in pressure” as the cause of that explosion. The other took place in Lewiston, Idaho, when a construction worker accidentally touched off a blast with his backhoe.
And in Marlborough, Massachusetts, a man died from “injuries suffered as a result of a natural gas explosion” which destroyed his home on October 28. According to reports, his gas service had been turned off since June.
It appears that natural gas leaks and explosions occur with “astonishing regularity wherever natural gas pipelines have been laid,” according to NaturalGasWatch.org.
A study published by researchers at Boston and Duke Universities found thousands of natural gas leaks in the streets of Boston alone. The scientists reported finding “methane concentrations reflecting 3,356 leaks in the natural gas distribution system in Boston.” In an interview with NaturalGasWatch.org, lead researcher Dr. Nathan Phillips said that “We stopped measuring because we ran out of time, but if we had kept going, we could have documented thousands or tens of thousands of leaks.”
Dr. Phillips’ words are less than reassuring considering the number of gas pipelines crisscrossing the country and running through cities and neighborhoods everywhere. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, “The U.S. has more than 2 million miles of pipelines — enough to circle the earth about 100 times.”
America’s infrastructure is aging and failing. With more than 60 percent of the nation’s gas pipelines being at least 40 years old or older, it’s a recipe for disaster. And regardless of the cause (aging pipelines, human error, Earth movements), these types of incidents are increasing.
“In reality, there is a major pipeline incident every other day in this country,” says Carl Weimer, Executive Director, Pipeline Safety Trust. Perhaps America’s Natural Gas Alliance needs to rethink its slogan of “Cheap, clean, safe natural gas.”
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