Just after 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning, a massive explosion tore through East Harlem in New York City, leveling two five-story buildings filled with apartments. Thus far, seven people have been confirmed dead in the blast, and dozens were injured. Preliminary signs point to a natural gas leak as the cause of the explosion: At 9:13 a.m., the gas company Con Ed received a call reporting that someone was smelling gas in the area. The company’s response crew arrived on the scene only a few minutes after the blast.
Though the exact cause of the explosion has not yet been confirmed, the tragedy likely underscores an inescapable fact of life in New York: The city is old. Much of its infrastructure—including water mains, sewer systems, roads, bridges, subways, and public buildings—are more than 50 years old, and, according to a report by the Center for an Urban Future released just this week, "many critical components are past their useful life and highly susceptible to breaks and malfunctions."
That includes natural gas, which provides 65% of the city’s heating. The 6,300 miles of gas main are an average of 56 years old. More than half of Con Ed’s mains (60%) are made of unprotected steel or cast iron, the most leak-prone materials in piping. According to a Senate report on the cost of gas pipeline leaks, lines made of these materials leak 18 times more gas than plastic pipes, and 57 times more than protected steel pipes. "Largely because of leaks, over 2% of the gas Con Edison sends to customers every year never makes it to its final destination," the report notes.
At this point, by the Center for an Urban Future’s reckoning, the New York City agencies will need to invest $47.3 billion into maintaining the city’s infrastructure over the next five years—and that’s just to keep things at the baseline, not to build anything new or increase capacity.
It’s not just a problem in New York. It’s a problem all over the country, and the world. A January 2013 McKinsey report covering more than 20 countries estimated that to keep up with projected economic growth, a $57 trillion investment in new global infrastructure is needed between now and 2030. But that figure doesn’t include the cost of maintaining and renewing current systems and increasing cities' resiliency in the face of climate change, both of which are clearly necessary.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructure a D+ grade on its annual report card in 2013. It noted that "America relies on an aging electrical grid and pipeline distribution systems, some of which originated in the 1880s." This January, a study in Washington, D.C. found 6,000 leaks in the city’s natural gas pipe system, including 12 places where the gas had built up in manholes to potentially explosive levels. The study estimated that failures in natural gas pipelines cause an average of 17 fatalities and cost $133 million in damage every year in the U.S. It’s bad for the environment, too: the methane exuded from a natural gas leak traps heat even more effectively than carbon dioxide.
Infrastructure repair projects are expensive and unglamorous. Residents don’t rally around the proposition of a new sewer pipe like they might a new park. Store owners probably won't report how much a new gas main is improving business. Most people don’t even know when these pipelines need replacing, and there are no beautiful renderings of the result.
It’s not until something terrible happens—like hurricanes or explosions—that basic repair projects to shore up infrastructure become a top priority. That will have to change, for the sake of our economy, the environment, and our lives. A 21st-century city can't move forward with 19th-century pipes.