(Part One of a series aimed at neighborhood or workplace teams)
An often-overlooked threat
The word “disaster” usually makes people think about natural disasters like tornado, flood, or earthquake. You’ve probably already talked in your group about how to prepare for these specific events.
Unless we’re reminded by notices from our local utility — Image at left shows a couple of brochures I’ve received recently — we may never even think about the gas lines that run under or near our homes or places of business.
But . . .
A gas line break can be deadly.
When a leak erupts in an explosion or fire, it’s dramatic and dangerous. Surely you remember these three big ones:
- In 2010 an explosion in an underground gas main followed by a massive fire destroyed over 50 homes and killed 8 people in a mostly residential neighborhood in San Bruno, California. Alleged Cause: stressed system with inadequate maintenance.
- In March 2015, two people were killed and four injured when a gas explosion in a Brooklyn, New York restaurant reduced the building to rubble and damaged neighboring businesses. Cause: leak from illegal pipe siphoning gas from restaurant to apartments above.
- In October of 2015, the Aliso Canyon gas leak was discovered north of Los Angeles. The leak was from a well within an underground storage facility – the second-largest gas storage facility of its kind in the United States. Over 97,000 tons of methane escaped in the 5 months before the well was capped; no one was killed but hundreds of people were displaced complaining of headaches, nausea and nosebleeds. Lawsuits continue. Cause: failure of equipment at 60-year-old facility.
Have you or your group asked:
Where are the lines around you?
Finding out where the gas lines run in your neighborhood will take some effort.
In the years that we’ve been studying our own community we have run up against resistance from a number of sources. As can be expected, cities and gas line operators are concerned about sabotage and/or terrorist activities so they protect the details of their systems.
However, a good emergency response group wants to understand its community’s risks, and so perseveres . . .!
Three places to start your research.
1-The National Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS) is an online map provided by the Department of Transportation. As a member of the public you can search by your State and COUNTY to get an idea of where gas transmission and hazardous gas pipelines are located.
I say “get an idea” because the public viewer is good only to +/- 500 ft. (If you are actually going to dig, then you need to contact your local pipeline operator – or call 811 – to find out exactly where the pipes are.)
Here’s the link to the map (“Public Map Viewer”): https://www.npms.phmsa.dot.gov/Default.aspx
2-Your local gas company
Here in California we have two of the largest public utilities in the country, and our local utility provides a map showing transmission and distribution lines. Once again, the authors of the map stress that the maps are accurate only to +/- 500 ft. Still, we can easily identify the “hazardous liquid” line running along the railroad tracks very near our home.
My research on other utility companies shows that there is no consistency. Many of the websites simply refer readers to the National Pipeline Mapping System.
3-Your local pipeline operator
The pipeline operator is not necessarily the same as the utility.
Keep your eye open for pipeline signs. They are not required, nor are they necessarily placed in the same way every time. What they seem to have in common is the gold color.
The round warning sign will tell you who the pipeline operator is. (You’ll see a round sign on the brochure in the image above, too.) Write down the name and emergency phone number. You may be able to get further information about that particular pipeline and what it carries from the operator.
Kinder/Morgan is the largest pipeline operator in the country, transporting nearly 40% of all piped natural gas, refined petroleum products, crude oil, carbon dioxide (CO2) and more. I found this map at their website. It shows their biggest pipes.
The point of all this is that with some digging (bad joke!) you can discover a lot about where pipelines are located in your community.
How we got information about our own community.
This Advisory is meant to give you an idea of where to start. Different members of our neighborhood emergency response group took on different tasks in researching our gas pipelines.
- I tracked down online maps like the ones shown in this Advisory.
- One member hiked along the railroad tracks and photographed a construction project showing the size and exact location of gas lines.
- One member went to city hall to get the original construction drawings for our community. These drawings showed not only the location but also the size of the various pipes in the network, plus shut-off valves.
- As a group we queried the management of our community regarding make-up and maintenance of our local system.
- Our group invited the fire department, the police department and our local utility to special meetings on gas safety. (You will not be surprised to learn that they don’t always agree on where the lines are, what information to share or how to respond in an emergency!)
OK, so we know where the pipelines are and what they are carrying.
Now, how to prevent an explosion or fire?
Gas is leaking from all these systems all the time! Most of the time the gas that escapes isn’t even noticed (except by the atmosphere, of course, since methane – the main component of natural gas – is 30 times more potent as a heat trapping gas than CO2.)
But any time there’s a leak, there’s a potential for explosion or fire.
In our next Advisory we’ll share what we have learned about recognizing a leak when you see, hear or smell one, and what to do when you find one.
Stay tuned for Part Two.
Your Emergency Plan Guide Team