Flood Damage to NYC Natural Gas System Could Pose Long-Term Public Safety ThreatNov 2nd, 2012 | By fjgallagher | Category: Lead Articles, NYC Natural Gas Infrastructure
Even as firefighters struggle to extinguish natural gas-fueled fires above ground in New York City and New Jersey, damage done to the metropolitan area’s underground natural gas distribution system by the recent massive flooding may pose a significant, long-range threat to public safety, according to industry experts and documents obtained by NaturalGasWatch.org.
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The problem, Mark McDonald, the president of the New England Gas Workers Association, told NaturalGasWatch.org, can be traced to a key component in the city’s natural gas distribution infrastructure called a regulator vault.
McDonald, a natural gas industry expert with decades of experience working with natural gas infrastructure, said regulator vaults are important because they reduce the pressure of the natural gas coming in to any given area so that it can be distributed to consumers safely.
When regulator vaults are flooded, McDonald said, the regulator mechanism’s ability to reduce gas pressure can be significantly impaired.
“Water can cause the regulator to be stuck open completely, in the wide open position,” McDonald said. “If that happens, it dramatically increases the pressure and it can cause serious problems down the line. If gas is coming into a home or a business at a much higher pressure than it’s supposed to, it can cause a fire or even an explosion.
In addition, prolonged exposure to water can contribute to accelerated corrosion of the regulators, causing gas leaks that could trigger an explosion or fire.
According to documents obtained by NaturalGasWatch.org, the utilities are well aware of the danger posed by flooded regulator vaults. Indeed, Con Edison, the utility that provides natural gas distribution service in New York City, acknowledged as much in a document entitled, “Gas Long Range Plan 2010-2030,” noting that the problem could become particularly acute as climate change continues to alter weather patterns.
From ConEd’s Gas Long Range Plan 2010-2030:
Increased frequency of rain will cause flooding. Con Edison’s Gas Engineering and R&D are working on a design for a vent line protector for households in flood prone areas. More frequent flooding of regulator vaults may need to be addressed in the future. (emphasis added)
A representative from ConEd was unable tell NaturalGasWatch.org how many regulator vaults were flooded in conection with Hurricane Sandy.
“I don’t have that information at my fingertips,” the ConEd spokesperson said. “We’re much more concerned right now with restoring service as quickly as possible.”
ConEd is not the only utility to acknowledge the problems caused to regulator vaults by extended exposure to water.
In New Jersey, New Jersey Natural Gas is currently involved in litigation with the town of Red Banks, New Jersey over the placement of regulator vaults. The town, the utility maintains, wants to keep the regulator vaults underground because it’s more aesthetically pleasing to have the structures out of sight instead of cluttering up the streetscape.
NJNG wants to relocate the regulator vaults above ground because underground vaults pose a threat to public safety.
From a March 14, 2012 Memorandum of Law in the Case of New Jersey Natural Gas v. Borough of Red Banks and the Red Bank RiverCenter Special Improvement District:
NJNG is attempting to move the underground service regulators to above-ground locations for one reason: to avoid the significant and imminent danger of a potentially deadly gas leak in a densely populated area. … Every day that Red Bank and River Center are able to block NJNG from replacing underground regulators exposes NJNG and the general public to the very real danger of such a fatal gas explosion or fire. (emphasis added)
You can read the complete legal memo from NJNG v. Borough of Red Bank here: March 14, 2012 Memorandum of Law, NJNG v. Borough of Red Banks
You can read the complete Gas Long Range Plan 2010-2030 here: ConEd Gas Long Range Plan 2010-2030
Here’s some video of a natural gas regulator vault explosion in New York City that occurred last year: