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Could NYC gas leak explosion happen in D.C.?

Friday - 3/14/2014, 5:55pm  ET

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Rescue workers remove an injured person on a stretcher after a possible explosion and building collapse in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York, Wednesday, March 12, 2014 (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
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WASHINGTON - Washington, D.C. has a significant number of natural gas leaks, and the issue is getting new attention after a massive explosion in New York City.

Investigators are looking at the possibility a 125-year-old gas pipe contributed to the deadly blast in Harlem, which destroyed two five-story apartment buildings. Old, cast iron gas pipes are a problem in New York City -- and in the nation's capital.

"From our work across D.C. and Boston, the number-one predictor of natural gas leaks is old piping," because it can corrode and crack, says Rob Jackson, a professor at Duke and Stanford universities.

"Surprisingly, about a third of Washington, D.C.'s pipelines are made of cast iron."

This means they could be up to 75 or 100 years old.

In a study released in January, Jackson and others mapped 5,893 natural gas leaks in the District. The researchers also found potentially explosive concentrations of gas in 12 manholes. Jackson says they notified Washington Gas, but another round of testing months later found that dangerous conditions remained at eight locations. "That was a real surprise to me," says Jackson.

In an email to WTOP, a Washington Gas spokesman said the company "immediately responded to each of the identified leaks."

D.C. firefighters, meanwhile, fielded 1,700 calls for gas odors last year, or about five calls per day, according to numbers from the D.C. Fire and EMS Department.

Jackson says he plans to return to D.C. to test the sites again in the coming months. He believes many utilities want to overhaul aging systems, but would likely have to raise rates.

"The companies are limited by the public utility commissions… in what they can charge consumers for repair costs," he says.

According to the statement from Washington Gas, "all utilities are challenged with the timely replacement of aging infrastructure."

The company also praises Maryland and Virginia for "recognizing this challenge by creating a law which allows for the accelerated replacement of aging infrastructure."

Jackson warns even though the cause of the Harlem blast has yet to be determined, "Cities with older infrastructure and cities with higher leak rates are more likely to experience those kinds of disasters -- rare as they are."

Jackson says the issue is real, but should be put in perspective.

"You're a lot more in danger walking across the street in Washington D.C. and being hit by a car, than you are having your building blow up."

If you do smell natural gas, Washington Gas offers the following tips:

  • RECOGNIZE: Natural gas is non-toxic, colorless, odorless and is a combustible fuel. For detection and safety, we add an unpleasant, distinctive odorant called mercaptan to natural gas delivered through Washington Gas' distribution system.

  • REACT: If you suspect a natural gas leak or other gas emergency and are unsure of its severity or what to do:

    • Evacuate the area immediately and call 911 from a safe location.
    • Do not attempt to locate the source of the odor. Call 911 or the Washington Gas Emergency Leak Line at 703-750-1400 or 1-800-752-7520 outside the local calling area.

    • If the odor is very strong or you hear a blowing or hissing noise, vacate the building or area immediately, leaving doors unlocked as you go. Warn others as you exit, if possible.

    • Do nothing that could create an ignition source. Do not light a match or use any type of phone or battery-powered equipment. Do not turn electrical equipment or light switches on or off. Do not start your car or any other type of motorized equipment.

    • Call 911 or the Washington Gas Emergency Leak Line at 703-750-1400, only after you have reached a safe distance away from the building or area.
  • RESPOND: When notified of a natural gas leak, Washington Gas dispatches trained technicians to the scene 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If a leak poses an immediate threat, the company takes quick action to make the area safe. If a natural gas leak does not pose an immediate threat, corrective action may be scheduled for a later date. This prioritization process helps the company ensure the safety of all its customers, while also allocating resources more efficiently, coordinating necessary work with customers' schedules and minimizing traffic disruptions.

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