Aging gas pipelines require special consideration

September 25, 2014

An extensive investigation by NBC News and USA Today into the condition of America's pipelines revealed some troubling facts about the country's aging gas infrastructure. According to the source, about every other day over the past decade, a gas leak has occurred that was either fatal, caused bodily harm or destroyed property in the U.S. There have also been tens of thousands of leaks that were fortunately addressed before further harm was created. 

It seems as if the causes of these leaks are varied, and therefore it is difficult to simply adopt a "quick fix" plan of action. Causes can range from corrosive soil, to construction accidents to weather conditions. However, there is one concern that is apparent in every area of the county: century-old cast-iron pipes.

The source explains that there are tens of thousands of miles of cast-iron and bare-steel gas mains buried underneath our feet. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has been pushing gas utilities for more than a decade to replace aging pipes with more resilient materials like plastic, though it's not required by law.

More than 67 million American homes are equipped with natural has, as well as more than 5 million businesses and public buildings. Paul Oleksa of Akron, Ohio, explained why it is most often these types involved in leaks and accidents. 

"If pipe has been in the ground, for, say, 50 years, and it's done a great job, fine. But the probability of a leak gets greater as it gets older, so it's prudent to replace it. How quickly? There's no hard and fast answer," he explained to USA Today. 

Many organizations in the gas utility industry have made replacing these aging pipes a priority, but the process is not cheap. It can cost up to $1 million per mile to replace the aging pipe. Many of the country's oldest cities, such as New York and Boston, have thousands of miles of these outdated pipes below city streets. 

A spokesman for energy company Consolidated Edison explained the organization's replacement process: "We replace main sections by priority based on a number of factors including pipe diameter, pressure, prior leak history and proximity to buildings, material, soil conditions, age and other conditions. Old does not mean bad — some newer iron pipes may merit replacement because of their location in corrosive soil."

Environmental consultants can help organizations identify the areas that pose the most risk to pipeline security. While replacing the entirety of the country's aging gas infrastructure may not be fiscally possible, environmental consultants ensure those areas that pose the most immediate threat are attended to, and keep both nearby residents and property safe.