It’s bad enough that rain-water run-off from our streets takes oil-derived toxins, metal and synthetic dust into our soil then into our groundwater and rivers. But it also turns out that human-injected poisons seep up from below our roads, destroying plant life, killing soil, and creating explosive danger on the surface as well. The volatile poison is natural gas. And local groups are just beginning to measure its unwanted presence.
So long as it stays in the mind-bogglingly large network of gas pipelines running down almost all our streets to business and residential locations, natural gas is a much better fuel than coal or oil or gasoline. But it’s a dangerous amendment to the soil and the air above it if it leaks out. And it is leaking – a lot, as we’re just beginning to discover. There are more than 3,300 natural gas leaks in Boston and at least 20,000 across the state, releasing between eight and twelve billion cubic feet of natural gas each year.
Here in the Northeast, the major problem is the age of the pipe system. At least 17% of NSTAR’s pipes, for example, are over a half-century old and made of cast iron which, like a cast iron pot left outside, have rusted into a fragile skeleton. A big bang on the street above from a truck or other object, a vibration running along the pipe due to an explosion or even from distant repair work, the impact of frost heaves or a minor shifting of the ground – any kind of jostling could create a crack, sometimes small but often large enough for gas to begin leaking.
If enough gas seeps to the surface into a building it doesn’t take much of a spark to send it up. This year, seven people died in a Harlem, NYC gas disaster. A month later twelve people were hurt in Dorchester from a gas-caused house explosion. There have been similar explosions in Springfield, Gloucester, Fitchburg, Somerset, and Winthrop – with more coming.
But even if the gas doesn’t destroy our homes, and lives, it can damage our environment. Seeping gas kills roots – of trees, shrubs, and plants. Brookline, which is one of the first cities to begin investigating the problem, estimates that over a million dollars in tree damage has already occurred in their community. It’s likely that other cities have similar although as yet undiagnosed problems.
And when the gas gets up to the air it continues its dirty work – natural gas is methane which has a greenhouse warming effect up to 34 times more than CO2. There are a lot of jokes about cow flatulence and climate change; natural gas is a much more abundant source! In Cambridge, gas leaks are estimated to have the equivalent climate change impact of the total annual emissions of nearly a third of all the cars registered in the city.
The infuriating aspect of the entire situation is that we, the region’s natural gas consumers, pay for all the lost gas and the dead trees and eventually for the climate destabilization. The cost of the “lost” gas is factored into our utility bills, a “surcharge” estimated by the Conservation Law Foundation to be about $38 million a year in Massachusetts alone. It is reflected in the high cost of doing business in our state. And it is our property tax that pays for the trees and plants that die. Not to mention the human cost of fires and explosions.
Utility and gas transmission companies are only required to fix leaks that are “potentially explosive.” However, according to Massachusetts State Representative Lori Ehrlich, utilities would earn back the cost of fixing the average leak in less than 3 years. The companies know where the leaks are located – their “sniffer trucks” drive up and down as many streets as they can. But under current regulations they have no incentive to front the money in the first place.
Community “HEET” groups have begun bringing the situation to light. First, starting in Somerville and Cambridge, they are using a precision methane analyzer to find the leaks and map their location. Second, the groups are mobilizing citizens to report and demand action on the worst leaks – just fixing the top ten will save ratepayers an estimated $45,000 per year and prevent the carbon equivalent of 500 passenger cars from hitting the atmosphere.
Even though we are most aware of the lousy pavement conditions on top of the road, sometimes it’s what’s under the street that counts. There are a variety of bills relating to this issue now pending in the Legislature. Get in touch with HEET at (info@HEETma.org) and find out what you can do to demand action!
Thanks to Audrey Schulman for feedback on an earlier draft.
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