Over-pressurized gas lines destroy dozens of homes in Massachusetts

Thanks for all the clean, safe, reliable, occasionally dangerous as hell energy:

A series of gas explosions an official described as "Armageddon" killed a teenager, injured at least 10 other people and ignited fires in at least 39 homes in three communities north of Boston on Thursday, forcing entire neighborhoods to evacuate as crews scrambled to fight the flames and shut off the gas. Massachusetts State Police urged all residents with homes serviced by Columbia Gas in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover to evacuate, snarling traffic and causing widespread confusion as residents and local officials struggled to understand what was happening.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency blamed the fires on gas lines that had become over-pressurized but said investigators were still examining what happened. Columbia had announced earlier Thursday that it would be upgrading gas lines in neighborhoods across the state, including the area where the explosions happened. It was not clear whether work was happening there Thursday, and a spokeswoman did not return calls.

One of the (many) drawbacks to using natural gas is that "all" lines require pressure, and that pressure is relative to the size and distance the gas must travel. The big pipelines require an extreme amount of pressure, which is one of the things that make them so dangerous. But even small lines that serve individual homes or businesses require pressure, and just a modest increase can result in fugitive emissions (leaks). And when those gas lines have been in place for decades, the danger becomes much more acute:

About every other day over the past decade, a gas leak in the United States has destroyed property, hurt someone or killed someone, a USA TODAY Network investigation finds. The most destructive blasts have killed at least 135 people, injured 600 and caused $2 billion in damages since 2004.

The causes are many and complex, and often outside of the utility company's control, from construction workers hitting a gas pipe while digging to weather. But one nagging concern persists: aging bare-metal gas pipes that are susceptible to rust and corrosion, which can lead to leaks.

A review of federal data shows there are tens of thousands of miles of cast-iron and bare-steel gas mains lurking beneath American cities and towns — despite these pipes being a longtime target of National Transportation Safety Board accident investigators, government regulators and safety advocates.

Not that you don't already have a hurricane to worry about, but you may want to think twice about buying one of those "neat" older homes and fixing it up. Especially if it uses gas lines for heating and such.

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