LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - A hidden danger could be lying underneath your home. Decaying and corroding gas pipelines are being blamed for fiery and often deadly explosions, and hundreds of miles of these risky gas lines remain in use all over Kentuckiana.
The federal government ordered utility companies to remove the outdated gas pipelines years ago, but thousands of families on both sides of the Ohio River are still living above these old gas lines. While incidents are rare, these pipelines have been linked to a number of tragedies.
In March, eight people died and 48 were injured when two five-story buildings in Harlem collapsed after an explosion. Investigators found that a number of small leaks in cast iron gas pipelines below the pavement may have started the fire.
In 2012, a gas line turned into a giant blowtorch in West Virginia, charring a section of interstate, destroying three houses and damaging others. A ruptured bare steel pipeline was at the center of the blaze.
In 2010, eight people were killed and many more were injured after a gas line in California ruptured in the middle of a neighborhood, leveling 38 homes. Again, a leaking bare steel pipeline provided the fuel for the fire.
"Any given piece of pipe isn't dangerous until it leaks," said Andrew Melnykovych, spokesman for the Kentucky Public Service Commission (PSC). "[Cast iron and bare steel pipes] are more prone to leaks."
The Kentucky PSC is now overseeing the removal of all cast iron and bare steel gas pipelines statewide.
Cast iron gas lines can be more than 100 years old and deteriorate and become brittle over time.
Bare steel pipelines, which can be upwards of 60 years old, corrode. Both problems can cause gas leaks, and both lead to fire or explosions if the gas gets ignited.
The federal government tightened safety restrictions on gas distribution lines in 2009; then in 2011, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a call to action to accelerate the repair of aging pipelines nationwide, writing "recent tragedies require prompt attention to ensure the safety of communities across the country."
"Bottom line is this old infrastructure needs to be replaced, and the sooner it gets replaced the safer the systems will be," Melnykovych said.
LG&E spokeswoman Natasha Collins said her company has replaced 452 miles of cast iron and bare steel lines with more durable plastic piping, down from a total of 540 miles when LG&E's replacement program began in 1996.
"You don't want to see anything happen like what happened in New York," Collins said.
It will take another couple of years for LG&E to finish the job. Right now, there are still 88 miles of the aging and potentially dangerous pipelines in use in Louisville. Most of it is downtown and in Old Louisville.
Collins said people living in those areas should not be worried.
"We maintain our system. We do safety checks. We do gas leak surveys," Collins said.
They are also monitoring the threat in Indiana where Vectren says it has replaced 200 miles of cast iron and bare steel lines in the region that includes Clark and Floyd Counties. But Vectren still has 800 more miles to go in that part of its territory. Vectren North President Mike Roder acknowledges it will be another five or six years before all of its aging pipelines are replaced.
"We've got literally thousands of miles of pipe that are in the ground, and it just takes a period of time," Roder said.
The hope is that time doesn't run out before what's happened in other parts of the country happens here. Kentucky and Indiana are doing better than most states when it comes to removing the old pipelines.
New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania all still have thousands of miles of cast iron and bare steel gas lines in the ground.
Most of the data resides with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Natural gas companies file annual reports with PHMSA that cover leaks, mileage, etc. The online database for those reports can be found by clicking here.
The cost of the pipeline replacement is massive. LG&E is spending $250 million on its gas pipeline replacement program. Vectren is spending $900 million. Both companies are passing those costs on to customers with higher rates -- about $1 a month per home.
Collins said, in general, LG&E has not seen cast iron used for residential housing gas pipes; however homeowners have ownership of and responsibility for gas pipes within their own homes. Because that is the case, only the customer would be aware of what those pipes are made of and the condition of the pipes. Depending on the age of the home, the material the pipes are made of and their condition, customers should enlist a certified plumber to address any concerns they may have. The certified plumber can inspect gas lines and let the homeowner know if there are any issues that need to be addressed.
Customer-owned gas pipes in homes typically are not underground (except those used for outdoor appliances such as grills or pool heaters) like distribution gas pipes, have lower pressure than distribution pipes and typically are located inside and not exposed to outdoor elements. These conditions reduce the possibility for corrosion and cracking.
Here's a list of natural gas safety tips from LG&E:
Familiarize yourself with signs of a natural gas leak and report a suspected leak immediately.
If you are inside:
Other signs of a gas leak:
LG&E provides information regarding natural gas safety on its website and periodically through the mail to customers and others who live near LG&E's gas lines.
Report excavations to LG&E using the contact numbers provided above if you do not see locating flags or paint. This can be reported by calling 5092-589-5511.
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