A quiet, sunny afternoon in New England quickly turned to chaos and tragedy as a series of 80 fires and explosions erupted across three communities in the Merrimack Valley north of Boston on September 13. Extreme overpressure in a Columbia Gas distribution system caused uncontrollable natural gas venting over a wide area, and the resulting blasts killed one and injured more than two dozen.
In the wake of this disaster, scientists and environmentalists are raising questions about the safety and climate impacts of Massachusetts’ aging natural gas infrastructure and the wisdom of continuing to rely on this fossil fuel.
Margaret Cherne-Hendrick, lead author of a 2016 Boston University study of natural gas leaks, cautioned, “This is a very delicate system. It’s a system that is piping a combustible gas into everybody’s homes and businesses.”
‘Ticking time bombs’
Experts have repeatedly warned about the dangers of Massachusetts’ pipelines. The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) calls them “ticking time bombs.” According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), 38 percent of the system distributing natural gas was installed prior to 1970. Massachusetts utilities still operate more than 8,300 miles of old, risky cast-iron and steel pipe, which includes those in the recent explosions.
But brand-new pipes don’t guarantee safety. Just a few days before the disaster in Massachusetts, a pipeline transporting natural gas from wells to a processing plant exploded in Pennsylvania. It had only been in service for seven days.
“Gas is climate damaging, has public health implications and concerns, and it very clearly has safety concerns as well,” said Greg Cunningham, director of the clean energy and climate change program at CLF. “Those may arise infrequently, but they’re devastating when they do.”
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