Pipeline peril: Natural gas explosions reveal silent danger lurking in old cast iron pipes

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The cast iron natural gas main that served Richard Williams’ turn-of-the-century home in this Southern college town was as old as the house itself: It was built during Shreveport’s first gas-fueled boom in 1911.

When that pipeline cracked in 2016, the gas built up slowly and silently in a shed behind Williams’ home. All it took was an ignition source – a lit cigar – to spark the gaseous fireball that would take his life.

The 65-year-old psychiatrist was one of at least 264 people killed in natural gas leaks, fires and explosions since 1990, a USA TODAY analysis of federal data shows. More than 1,600 people have been injured.

The natural gas industry and its government regulators have known of the dangers of leaking gas pipelines for decades. After a fatal gas explosion in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1990, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended utilities replace their cast iron pipes “in a planned, timely manner.”

Twenty-eight years later, the utilities still haven’t finished the job.

The work is expensive, often difficult, and sometimes perilous. Gas crews upgrading cast iron pipe in Massachusetts in September inadvertently ignited fires and explosions that destroyed 131 buildings, killing one person, injuring 21 and leaving hundreds homeless.

That disaster – and hundreds of others across the country – illuminate the conflicting pressures on the industry as it tries to balance safety with consumer demands for cheap, convenient energy.

State utility commissions are under pressure from consumer groups to keep energy rates down. Grassroots groups oppose new pipelines in their neighborhoods. And often there aren’t enough qualified pipeline workers to do the work safely.

Utilities replacing leaking gas pipes receive only spotty oversight from a fractured system of state and federal safety regulations. Government regulators have largely left it to the utilities to determine for themselves what their biggest safety vulnerabilities are.

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