The devastating natural gas explosion in California recently suggests the need for more frequent inspections of fuel pipelines nationwide. More important, it highlights the ticking bomb that is America's aging infrastructure.
Four people were killed, three others went missing, and more than 50 people were injured when a 30-inch gas transmission line exploded in a huge fireball in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno. The blast and fire destroyed 37 homes, heavily damaged eight others, and left behind a crater some 40 feet deep.
Pacific Gas & Electric, which owns the steel pipeline, says it was inspected earlier this year. That has yet to be confirmed by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the explosion. What is confirmed is that the pipeline was more than 50 years old, and wasn't even the oldest segment of pipe in that area.
Much of America's infrastructure - from sewer and water lines to roads and bridges to dams and pipelines - is more than half a century old and living on borrowed time.
Predictably, the fiery explosion on Sept. 5 led to calls for accelerated pipeline inspections and the inevitable congressional committee hearing on the tragedy. Washington likes to be seen doing something, even if only after the fact. In addition, the California Public Utilities Commission ordered PG&E to inspect its entire 5,722-mile network of pipes.
Some 70 million homes and businesses nationwide use natural gas. More than 1.5 million miles of pipelines crisscross the United States to serve those homes and businesses. In Ohio alone, there are more than 54,000 miles of distribution lines and 6,000 miles of higher-pressure transmission lines.
Columbia Gas of Ohio says that federal guidelines already require that all distribution lines be inspected once a year in business districts and once every three years in residential areas. Transmission lines have to be inspected in their entirety every four to 12 months. That seems adequate, although the California blast suggests more might be done.
But there is a larger infrastructure problem. More than 25 percent of U.S. bridges need repair. More than 4,000 dams are classified as deficient. Nearly 2,000 of those dams present a serious hazard; if they fail, there could be significant loss of life.
Leaky water lines waste 7 billion gallons of fresh water every day. The national electrical grid, which has been likened to a system of country roads and streets, has to be upgraded to become the superhighway necessary to handle the nation's growing energy requirements.
Aging sewer lines pump billions of gallons of untreated wastewater into America's waterways every year. A story in The Blade last week noted that so much raw sewage overflows Toledo's antiquated system that the city has given up trying to keep track of the number of gallons. Instead, only the minutes of overflow are recorded - nearly 160,000 since August, 2009.
In January, 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that it would cost $2.2 trillion over five years to bring our infrastructure up to snuff. Some efforts have been made to begin the process. Of the $48 billion in federal transportation stimulus money approved last year, nearly $40 billion has been committed to nearly 15,000 projects, Time magazine reported last week. Most of that money is for infrastructure upgrades rather than new roads.
More should be done. Money spent repairing and upgrading the nation's infrastructure serves the dual purposes of creating thousands of jobs for out-of-work Americans at a time of high unemployment, and preparing America to compete more effectively in the 21st-century global economy.
And it shouldn't take a fatal explosion to persuade Washington to do more than pay lip service to the need for a major investment in the substructure that supports our nation's economy.