Last week, the city of San Bruno, California was rocked when an underground natural gas pipeline ruptured, exploded, and killed at least four people, injured at least 50 more, and flattened dozens of homes.
How could this have happened?
Apparently, the pipeline itself was over 50-years old, although PG&E claims the pipes were inspected and declared as safe just this year. PG&E has subsequently established a $100 million fund to help residents recover, allocating $15,000 to $50,000 per resident to help them rebuild. Of course, that's a mere drop in the bucket for San Bruno residents whose homes had a mean price of $684,005 and even mobile homes are valued at an jaw-dropping $450,000, according to City-data.com (honestly, I have my doubts about that last number).
Although the San Bruno explosion was the most photogenic, CBS News reports that "since 1990 natural gas leaks have been linked to 291 fatalities and almost a billion dollars in property damage, according to the Department of Transportation."
A second CBS News report states, "Over the past two decades, federal officials tallied 2,840 significant gas pipeline accidents nationwide -- including 992 in which someone was killed or required hospitalization, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration."
Natural gas problems are not, therefore, new news.
Could this happen to you?
The short answer is this: possibly. More than 60 million homes (about half in the U.S.) are fed by natural gas pipelines. That means there's a good chance you're living on top of the same sort of situation that caused San Bruno to erupt into "hell on Earth," as San Bruno resident Bob Pellegrini described it.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the United States has a tremendous natural gas pipeline network:
- More than 210 natural gas pipeline systems.
- 305,000 miles of interstate and intrastate transmission pipelines (see mileage table).
- More than 1,400 compressor stations that maintain pressure on the natural gas pipeline network and assure continuous forward movement of supplies (see map).
- More than 11,000 delivery points, 5,000 receipt points, and 1,400 interconnection points that provide for the transfer of natural gas throughout the United States.
- 24 hubs or market centers that provide additional interconnections (see map).
- 400 underground natural gas storage facilities (see map).
- 49 locations where natural gas can be imported/exported via pipelines (see map).
- 8 LNG (liquefied natural gas) import facilities and 100 LNG peaking facilities (see map).
Is your home sitting on top of a potential "hell on Earth" firebomb?
Hyperbole-filled, attention-getting headlines aside, the answer is you might be. Most public utilities claim they inspect pipes throughout the United States and no utility wants this sort of news. But like much of America's infrastructure, many pipelines are old, need to be replaced, and have the potential for catastrophic failure.
There's a happy thought.