Public Works Don't Work

by by Ashton Strait

It looked like hell on earth. I have never seen a ball of fire that huge,” Bob Pellegrini told reporters in the aftermath of the recent September 9 gas line explosion in San Bruno, CA. The fire caused by the blast killed four people and injured 52 others in addition to destroying 37 homes and damaging over a hundred more. The explosion occurred when a 30-inch steel pipeline carrying natural gas ruptured, blasting a 28-foot section of the pipe nearly the length of a block and leaving a crater big enough to swallow a tank in the street. Residents describe feeling their houses shake, and calls began pouring into 911 minutes after the blast, describing a fireball rising almost 100 feet into the air.

Initial suspicions were that an airplane had crashed due to the neighborhood’s close proximity to the San Francisco International Airport.  Ultimately, the fire burned between 15 and 20 acres in the neighborhood. Four firefighters attempting to contain the blaze were seriously injured. Soon it was discovered that the blaze was started by the gas from the pipeline, but quickly spread to houses both from the surface and via lesser pipelines connected to neighborhood homes. Firefighters report that the heat from the fire reached 1200 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt the taillights on cars parked hundreds of feet from the primary blaze. The explosion also damaged a critical water main, so firefighters had to truck in water, slowing suppression efforts.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has begun investigations into the precise cause of the explosion, but documents obtained by CNN from Pacific Gas and Electric, the company that owns and operates the pipeline, state that the pipe had a “relatively high risk and likelihood of failure.” Furthermore, because the pipe was located beneath a highly populated neighborhood, “the risk of a failure at this location [is] unacceptably high.” The pipe was installed in 1948, and as Mark Toney, the executive director of the San Francisco-based Utility Reform Network, stated, “this was an area that was old, that was at risk, that they [Pacific Gas and Electric] identified as high risk.” Indeed, several people in the neighborhood have come forward testifying to the fact that they reported smelling gas in the area of in the weeks and months before the explosion, and Pacific Gas and Electric is reported to have received notification of these possible gas leaks, but took no action. Pacific Gas and Electric owns and operates 42,141 miles of natural gas distribution pipelines and provides natural gas to around 4,300,000 customers.

“My car is going down!” the woman screams in the 911 call, “I’m going down! Please! I’m going down!” This woman is trapped helplessly in her Honda Accord as frigid water rises around her—the result of a water main break in Bethesda, MD on December 23, 2008. She was airlifted out of the car some time later, as were two other drivers. She and many others were trapped during their morning commute as the roadway they were driving on was suddenly and inexplicably flooded with quickly-rising water. In total, firefighters and rescue crews saved nine people trapped in eight cars, leaving no fatalities. The incident came on the heels of a similar water main rupture in Maryland in June 2008 that shut down hundreds of restaurants and left residents without clean drinking water. The Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission (WSSC), who was responsible for the pipeline, had warned prior to both disasters that its aging sanitation system, which serves nearly 2,000,000 customers, was underfunded. WSSC spokesman Jim Neustadt told local reporters, “we are working on long-term plans to try to repair or replace those pipes… and we need the funding to do it. It gets to be a very difficult situation.”  In 2007, the system had a record-breaking 2,129 breaks or leaks, though most were relatively minor incidents.

It’s not just Maryland and California that are experiencing failures in their aging public works.  On July 18, 2007, New York experienced a steam pipe explosion that rocked midtown Manhattan, killing one and injuring 30.  The 40-story plume of brown steam that burst into the air blew out a 40-foot crater in the middle of the street and rained down dirty water, pieces of piping, and asbestos onto the surrounding area. The pipe that exploded dated from 1924. Even worse, the incident was not unique. There have been over a dozen similar explosions in New York in the last two and a half decades, one of the worst of which killed 3 people in Gramercy Park in 1989.

The steam pipe that exploded recently in New York was owned by Con Edison, which operates 105 miles of pipes that service most of the city. Con Edison and the city of New York are still involved in litigation after Con Edison sued the city, pinning the failure on faulty sealant injected into the pipeline by a contractor working for the local government. The city maintains that the pipe’s failure was the result of the company’s poor maintenance of its underground infrastructure, though Con Edison inspectors had examined the pipe the morning of the explosion and alledgedly found no cause for alarm.  The official cause of the failure was contact with cold water, possibly from rain or a leaking water main. Cold water causes steam to condense in the pipe, creating a condition called “water hammer” or “hydraulic shock” that results in a wave of high pressure building up in the pipe. Newer, high-pressure pipelines are far less susceptible to this.

Pipelines aren’t the only public works showing their age in the last few years. Who can forget the footage of the I-35W bridge collapse in Minnesota in 2007? The bridge, which carried roughly 140,000 vehicles daily, came crashing down into the Mississippi River during rush hour traffic on August 1 of that year. The main causes of the collapse were cited as the unusually heavy load on the bridge due to the weight of construction equipment, as well as the failure of fatigued and stress-fractured gusset plates that joined the main trusses of the structure. Government inspections in the years leading up to the collapse rated the bridge as “structurally deficient” and it was scheduled to be replaced in 2020.

President Obama has pledged many times to help rebuild the country and save the economy by spending money on infrastructure. His most recent proposal is to build a 50 billion dollar infrastructure renewal bank that would be used to fund transportation infrastructure. Unfortunately, 50 billion is a drop in the bucket compared to the 2.2 trillion dollars the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates needs to be spent to repair our infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, dams, power lines, and other basic public utilities in the next five years. The ASCE releases an annual report card grading the country’s infrastructure using statistical assessments of seven components: capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, and resilience. In 2009, the total infrastructure “GPA” given by the ASCE was a D. In short, we’re failing.  It should come as no surprise either. Europe on average spends about 5 percent of its annual gross domestic product on infrastructure; the US spends half that. As the ASCE states on it’s report card website, “years of delayed maintenance and lack of modernization have left Americans with an outdated and failing infrastructure that cannot meet our needs.”

While pushing for the $787 billion stimulus bill last year, Obama described grand plans for, “building a 21st-century infrastructure,” citing previous times when “a generation of Americans seized the chance to remake the face of this nation.” Unfortunately, the new stimulus spending provides just that: a face-lift. Most of the public works projects accounted for in the bill are short-term projects, designed to create jobs quickly and to be completed within three years. Three-quarters of the highway projects’ funds, for example, will go to refurbishing existing roadways. This distribution makes sense from a political perspective, as major highway construction projects last about 13 years according to the Federal Highway Administration, by which time Obama will be long out of office.

However, no amount of infrastructure spending will have an effect if the local governments and private corporations who own our public works continue to fail to properly maintain and police these systems. Privately owned utilities cannot escape the problems inherent in any bureaucracy: the lack of cooperation among different sectors; the inability to take precise, definitive, and timely action; and the subjugation of the public interest to those of the organization. Unfortunately, because their functionality requires the bureaucratic institutions of the public and private sectors to work together, they encounter these problems two-fold. Perhaps a good portion of infrastructure spending should be spent to create a better system of federal regulation, so that the national government could have a more definitive and effective method of policing these corporations and their utility systems. City governments and national corporations, it seems, make strange, if not dysfunctional bedfellows, and since no one yet seems willing to take accountability for these failures, it seems we’ll continue to suffer for it.

Ashton Strait B’13 burns bridges.