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Con Edison and unrepaired gas leaks

Jim Hoffer investigates after the East Harlem explosion
Con Edison investigation
March 13, 2014 9:42:24 PM PDT
The early evidence in the East Harlem explosion seems to point to a severe gas leak. A recently filed with state regulators by Con-Ed reveals the utility has a big back-log of un-repaired gas leaks. Out of 811 leaks, just 13 of them are potentially hazardous. The other 798 are considered not dangerous, but need monitoring.

Karen Burstein once served on the Public Service Commission, the agency that regulates utilities. She takes little comfort in knowing that hundreds of known un-repaired leaks are categorized as non-hazardous.

"You can't fix every leak but that is too high a backlog," says Burstein, "non-hazard is a moving target, not a fixed phenomenon, so when I say it's non-hazardous today, it's non-hazardous tomorrow, believe me it's not."

Con Ed says it monitors the hundreds of non-hazardous leaks with special leak detection vans. The utility has also been replacing leak-prone cast-iron piping at a rate of 30 miles of pipe per year. With about 12-hundred miles of near century-old pipes in the system, total replacement could take decades.

"It will take us 30 years before all pipe is replaced. That's not acceptable," adds Burstein.

Meanwhile, federal investigators at the scene say the intact gas pipeline showed no visible rupture yet remains the focus of their probe.

"Once we have access, we will conduct a pressure test to determine location of the leak, said Robert Sumwalt of the NTSB, "we've requested from Con Ed critical info on the pipe such as pipe diameter, age of the pipe, the wall thickness."

Con Ed says it checks the hundreds of non-hazardous gas leaks once a year to confirm they remain non-hazardous. Con Edison says it spends $110 million per year on pipeline replacement. It is worth noting that More than half of the utilities gas lines are prone to corrosion and leaks due to their age and weather.

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