Is your home sitting on top of a potential "hell on Earth" firebomb?

Is your home sitting on top of a potential "hell on Earth" firebomb?

Summary: Like much of America's infrastructure, many pipelines are old, need to be replaced, and have the potential for catastrophic failure.

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TOPICS: Telcos
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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.

Topic: Telcos

About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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29 comments
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  • RE: Is your home sitting on top of a potential

    Great! This is not new but however very much needed. Instead of funding wars and creating Democracy and being the worlds police force we should be taking care of our infrastructure, ie. gas, water, electric grid etc. Charity Begins at home and its long overdue for our Government to do for itself and its citizens.
    Radiorara
    • You would think......

      @Radiorara

      that would be obvious to those in charge, but apparently it is not.

      With a disengaged and often ignorant electorate and corrupt politicians, this kind of thing is bound to recur.

      America needs a really good shakeup, but I doubt the tea party and Sarah Palin would be the right folks to do it:

      No more corporate political donations (after all, the shareholders are the voters).

      Caps on and disclosure of personal political donations.

      Term limits


      Until these changes are implemented, American politics will continue to be somewhat rotten.
      Economister
      • Government is not responsible for everything

        @Economister Just as JFK in his infamous quotes said '.... ask what you can do for your country'. the same should be said about the people and its corporate culture. individuals and corporations have suddenly become unethical and not doing their job they were supposed to do and are getting paid for it. hold these corporations and individual responsible as BP was held. once this is fixed. so shall everything else!
        RonDsz
    • We spend more on welfare

      And entitlements than the entire defense budget. How about you start cutting there. Oh wait. You aren't interested in fixing things if it means you lose your spot at the national teat.
      frgough
      • RE: Is your home sitting on top of a potential

        @frgough
        Oh yes, "entitlements". Such a nice buzzword. Are you one of those people who is unaware that Medicare is a government-run healthcare system? Cutting "entitlements" sounds great until you realize how much you yourself depend on them, either directly or indirectly.
        JoeFoerster
      • On to the TEA PARTY?

        @frgough YOU, SIR, ARE AN IDIOT!!! First "Entitlements" is the new buzz word which subtlety says that the recipients aren't REALLY entitled to their entitlements. And therefore are sucking the national teat. Second, you are right, if you look at the national budget more is going to committed funding than is going to defense, which is as it should be. Third, just take even the most casual look at what the defense budget is buying us, i.e.. Iraq, Afghanistan, billion dollar toys for the "top guns" to play with, and it becomes immediately apparent that THAT funding needs drastically cut. And forth, If government were "of, by and for" the people then government controls would be an appropriate tool to use to control big businesses, like oil companies, gas distribution systems, insurance companies, banks, highway systems (already there), railroads (kinda there), and a biggie, import <> export to stop shipping jobs to China and India. To people like you when any of your "hard earned" money is used to help your neighbor it's entitlements and the national teat, but you have no problem with bombing and destroying the infrastructure of some far away country which means nothing to you. Our governments only job is to work for its citizens, and it is NOT doing that. If it were, the gas lines would be safe, everyone, working or not, would have good medical coverage, adequate food and housing, and to answer your stupid national teat remark, they would have some means of being a worthwhile contributor to the nation as a whole.
        tangentjohn@...
    • In case it had escaped your notice...

      PG&E are the culprits, whether they think they are or not. They are a for profit company who either didn't have a decent maintenance/refurbishment plan, or was just plain gambling with their pipes lasting a bit longer.

      The only governmental role here is hammering them for not doing "the right thing" in making sure their pipes were up to scratch. They probably thought they were, because they probably trusted PG&E. It's not as though local governments have the money, people or time to check everything that might be nice to check.
      zkiwi
    • RE: Is your home sitting on top of a potential

      @Radiorara

      You seem to forget one very important fact. PG&E, like many other natural gas operators, are FOR PROFIT entities!

      Rather than spend money on necessary pipe inspections and replacements, both of which consume capital resources; they would rather spend the money on, let me see, stockholder profits, executive bonuses, campaign contributions? have I left something out?

      It is NOT the government's responsibility to SHOULDER THE COST of private enterprise improvements. The same could be said of the electric utility companies. They operate old, overburdened power grids, and would not want to spend the money to upgrade them.

      When these utilities are forced to make the inspections, and perform the maintenance; the first words out of their lying mouths is that it will drive rates up. The money is there, cut the stockholder dividends and the executive compensation FIRST; before asking for a rate increase.

      But, then again, we have "The Best Government Money Can Buy!" Politician to utility company lobbyist: "Don't forget I am running for re-election!"
      fatman65535
  • RE: Is your home sitting on top of a potential

    And thats not includnig the gasoline pipline network that is in need of replacing soon too!
    william.cooley@...
  • Once upon a time...

    Past Great Americans made a remarkable deal with the future, one that has paid off handsomely for US citizens until recently.<br><br>But one or two generations ago Americans decided they no longer needed to honor a deal that allowed them to prosper and become Masters Of The Universe. America succumbed to hedonistic consumption and stopped investing in the future.<br><br>Following in the footsteps of the previous generation, the generation currently in power refuses to reinstate the deal, believing (falsely) that they will be able to hold on to their gains without putting in the effort to honor the deal.<br><br><a href="http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2010/08/24/a-letter-to-my-students/"><b style="font-size:120%"><u>This is the deal past Great Americans made for the benefit of future generations</u></b></a>.

    You are letting your forefathers down while failing your kids, read about it and cringe!<br><br>P.S. Your today's article looks so serious, david, I'm so glad you finally started to take your zdnet job seriously.
    OS Reload
    • RE: Is your home sitting on top of a potential

      @OS Reload

      Part of the problem is that education and infrastructure just isn't a priority for people. Part of the problem is that social security, medicaid, and medicare are huge leeches on our national spending, which pulls money from states. Part of the problem is that citizens in California pay money to the federal government to reimburse the state of California for welfare for other citizens of the state of California. I know I've spent the last ten years voting for candidates that supported state funding for state programs, social security reform, and infrastructure spending. None of them won. I'm tired. I'll wait for someone else to do it right and move there I think.
      tkejlboom
  • RE: Is your home sitting on top of a potential

    The utility in our town doesn't just wait for reports of the type that were apparently ignored in San Bruno. They routinely drive a "sniffer" vehicle around town looking for leaks. If your local utility doesn't do this, you should lobby for them to do so.
    omb00900@...
    • Doesn't help

      @omb00900@...Sniffing for leaks helps only with the local distribution lines, which carry gas at low pressure. Those big main lines carry gas at very high pressure; if they start to leak, the friction of the escaping gas generates so much heat that they self-ignite. You have to prevent leaks in those, not fix them after they start to leak - it's too late then.

      This happened about a mile and a half from here - a small earth movement cracked the pipe, and whoosh! It sounded like a jet taking off, looked like the gas station a quarter-mile away was erupting in a tower of flames. It was actually a much bigger fire farther away, and fortunately, not close to any houses.
      Greenknight_z
  • This is bull crap!

    All of the pipeline company execs should be put in jail or beaten within an inch of their lives! ITS THEIR JOB TO MAINTAIN THE DAMN PIPELINES AND NOT PAY THEMSELVES GREAT SUMS OF MONEY - JUST LIKE THE DAMN BANKERS AMOUNG US THEY ARE THE NEXT IDIOT AND BURN THEM AT THE STAKE GROUP!
    amasys
    • Because of course

      The government regulators who inspected the pipe and declared it safe were innocent victims of the has company mind control rays.
      frgough
  • Lets see... 25 deaths per year...

    In the US we have the following.

    Vehicle deaths per year: 43,000
    Fall deaths per year: 13,000
    Drowning deaths per year: 4,000
    Accidental firearm related deaths per year: 700-800

    While 25 deaths per year is tragic, you really have to look at the rate of failures per year per installed infra- structure and not a simple snap shot of 1 or 2 events. Likewise, it is not enough to simply look at the number of deaths since many of these pipelines were placed in non-populated areas 30-50-70 years ago and are now heavy with people.

    Look at the failure rates. Look at the installed infra-structure. Normalize the data.

    Do <b><i>that</i></b> research and do some real journalism and see if there really is something to be concerned with. Without normalized data, however, this is just a rant with nothing to back it up.
    Bruizer
    • Friend, you are assuming

      The blog author gives a rat's rear-end about facts. He doesn't even really care about the type of disaster. All he's glad about is that something bad happened because of a government screw up (inspectors passing bad piping) that he can spin into evil greedy corporate ******* who should be even more controlled by a saintly state.
      frgough
      • Well, it was.....

        @frgough <br><br>the "saintly state" that permitted the corporations to exist in the first place. Without the corporations there would be LOT more personal liability and presumably very different behavior. Seems to me, once you allow the creation of the beast (and yes, I know it has been beneficial in many ways) the "saintly state" has both the right and the responsibility to play a role in how they operate. That is one of the purposes of creating a country ("saintly state") with rules in the first place. You should try to live under anarchy and see how you like that.
        Economister
    • RE: Is your home sitting on top of a potential

      @Bruizer
      If an accident happens and one person dies out of a hundred people, that's a 1% fatality rate. To that one person, it is however a 100% fatality rate. Statistics don't matter. Besides, 82.7 % of statistics are made up on the spot.
      trm1945
      • That is sympathetic BS

        @trm1945

        And you know it. People love to say that life is priceless when they really mean it is precious. These are different. Because we live in a world with lited resolves and capabilities, it really is impossible to save every single person. There will always be deaths that, with hindsight, could have been avoided. For those events that have huge impacts at a social level, like a wrecked plane or a falling bridge or a pipe line explosion, there are more regulations in place to avoid them.

        These regulations will not catch every fault but you do your best with the limited resources available to find issues before a catastrophic failure.

        So in your world, everyone live happily ever after and lives forever. That is a warped and naive view of the world. Guess what? You are going to die. I am going to die. And what is the leading cause of death? Guess.

        Also in your world and with your news/blogs, I suspect many of the stats really are made up. Like this article that presents only sensationalist data that means nothing. Why shouldn't the author actually do some work and find the meaningful data?
        Bruizer