Will a New High-Pressure Gas Line Help New Yorkers—Or Blow Them Up?

Pipe Bomb

From the window of her apartment on Bethune Street, Ynestra King can look out across the West Side Highway to the playground where she plays with children in her family, to the Hudson River, and beyond it, New Jersey. She can also see the place where a massive new pipeline carrying highly pressurized natural gas rises out of the river, carrying its explosive payload into the heart of the meatpacking district.

"It makes me very uneasy," King says. "I can't feel safe and comfortable in my home again. There's an established blast zone for when something goes wrong with this kind of technology, and I live inside it."

The pipeline, built by subsidiaries of Spectra Energy, runs about 16 miles from Staten Island, through New Jersey, and under the Hudson before surfacing in the West Village. Pipeline advocates say it will create construction jobs and help supply New York with natural gas, which burns cleaner than some heating oils.

An opponent of the Spectra pipeline clambered over a backhoe last summer in an effort to delay construction.
Courtesy Occupy the Pipeline
An opponent of the Spectra pipeline clambered over a backhoe last summer in an effort to delay construction.
In 2010, a pipeline the same size and pressure as the one being 
built in Manhattan blew up in 
San Bruno, California, destroying 
38 homes.
National Transportation Safety Board
In 2010, a pipeline the same size and pressure as the one being built in Manhattan blew up in San Bruno, California, destroying 38 homes.

Not everyone is convinced of the need for these pipelines. Demand for natural gas is at a low. Opponents of hydro-fracking worry that running this new pipeline, straight from the fracking wells of the Marcellus shale, helps to create a market for a dangerous product.

But leaving aside those environmental arguments, there's an even more immediate concern: Pipelines like this have a disturbing tendency to explode.

In December, a pipeline exploded in Sissonville, West Virginia, leveling four homes, badly damaging several others, and melting a nearby section of Interstate 77. A week before that, a pipe explosion in Goldsmith, Texas, sent a fireball 250 feet into the air, hurling bowling-ball-size rocks through the air. Two weeks before that, a leaky gas line detonated in Springfield, Massachusetts, flattening a strip club and blowing out windows in buildings for blocks around. The list continues.

In 2011, the last year for which there are complete statistics, there were 82 "significant incidents" involving natural gas transmission lines, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Those "incidents" alone resulted in $95 million in property damage.

Perhaps the most famous gas-line explosion in recent history took place in 2010, when a high-pressure transmission line, comparable in size and pressure to the Spectra project, exploded in a suburban subdivision in San Bruno, California, leveling 35 houses and damaging many more. The explosion registered with the U.S. Geological Survey as a 1.1 magnitude earthquake, and it carved out a crater 167 feet long and four stories deep. Amazingly, only eight people died.

But as long and disturbing as the list of natural-gas-pipeline disasters is, none of those catastrophes are particularly relevant to the Spectra pipeline, because none of them happened in a place nearly as densely populated as Manhattan or Jersey City. Until recently, no one was trying to run pipelines like this into urban neighborhoods.

To be clear, we're not talking about the distribution lines that bring natural gas to your home, typically two-inch pipes with pressure around 10 pounds per square inch. If you mess with one of those while digging in your front yard, you'll have a small but perfectly respectable explosion.

This isn't like that at all. It's a transmission line, 30 inches in diameter, running at pressures well in excess of that of a fire hose. When these things blow, they blow the fuck up.

"We talked to an expert, an engineer with substantial experience, who told us that at the top end, we could be looking at a crater and other damage that's close to a third of a mile in diameter," says Derek Fanciullo, the assistant corporation counsel for the Jersey City Department of Law. "We have 15,000 to 17,000 people living in a square mile. The human damage and the real property damage if this thing were to explode would be almost incalculable. It's not just the crater: the heat radiates out along the surface of the ground, and these explosions are so hot that if you try to bring emergency vehicles out to the area, those vehicles would melt."

Running this pipeline under the city, the consultant told officials, would be like putting a small-grade neutron bomb beneath the streets.

From Jersey City, the pipeline runs east under the Hudson, resurfacing at the Gansevoort Peninsula in Hudson River Park, currently the home of Sanitation Department trucks and the FDNY's Fire Boat headquarters. Running the pipeline where an explosion would likely take out the fireboat needed to bring it under control might seem like bad planning, especially compounded with the fact that a serious blast could also take out the water main that feeds nearby hydrants, as happened in the San Bruno blast.

It doesn't stop there. A few hundred feet south of where the pipeline makes landfall—I am not making this up—is the Pier 51 playground, frequented by the sometimes adorable and always flammable children of the neighborhood.

How is this possible? Aren't there any responsible adults in a position to rule out corporate projects whose risks have been compared to disaster-movie plot devices? The answer to that question, remarkably, is no.

Natural gas pipelines are governed by a complex patchwork of regulatory agencies, but it's a patchwork with plenty of holes. When a transmission line crosses state borders, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, whose authority trumps any state or local regulations. But while FERC produces a lengthy Environmental Impact Statement, it's minimally concerned with human safety. In the thousands of pages of its impact statement for the Spectra project, FERC regulators determined, reassuringly and at length, that the project would have negligible impact on wetlands, fisheries, migratory birds, aquifers, and a small plant known as the small whorled pogonia.

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