Previous installments of this series on private infrastructure resilience – you can read more here – consisted of stories about infrastructure failures that have caused serious, long-lasting consequences, often with no local systems in place to help communities recover. However, it is important to remember that when infrastructure fails, it does not just cause economic and structural problems but poses a serious life safety risk. Often, it is already vulnerable communities who lack the resources to both fix problems before a disaster and cope with the fallout. This is a problem Opportunity Zones are well placed to address: Incentivizing investment to fix problems which may be otherwise overlooked, by building back better and stronger.

Aerial view of East Harlem apartment explosion, March 12, 2014
Aerial view of East Harlem apartment explosion, March 12, 2014 – Wikimedia/Adnan Islam

In March 2014, a natural gas explosion in Harlem killed eight people, injured over 50, and left upwards of 100 families homeless. The pipe, owned by Con Edison, had been poorly repaired years before with a plastic joint. A break in an old sewer line had washed away the soil around the joint which led to the leak and deadly explosion, according to investigators. When the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released their report, Con Edison and the city pointed fingers at each other for the failure, as both the joint and the erosion from the sewer leak contributed.

When this incident occurred, the average age of the natural gas pipelines that run under New York was 56 years old, which is not unique to this city. Just three years earlier, an 83-year old pipe in Allentown, Pennsylvania failed and caused an explosion which killed five people. When natural gas lines were initially laid, beginning in the early 1900s, they weren’t designed to be in use for decades and the materials used were more prone to cracking and corrosion than modern-day pipes. This can turn otherwise small risks into dangerous problems. However, it is both logistically difficult and expensive to suspend service to dig up and replace old pipes.

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The latest similar incident occurred just over a week ago on September 13 in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, Massachusetts. A series of buildings connected to Columbia Gas natural gas lines exploded or caught fire, destroying over 80 structures, killing one person, and injuring dozens more in the largest natural gas incident in almost 10 years. At least 8,600 people were displaced while officials worked to make homes connected to the lines safe again, which provide heat to the majority of the region. In the wake of the disaster, the local community was heavily reliant on each other, from citizens who ran into burning buildings to help others evacuate to finding shelter and donating food. These are not insignificant challenges; Lawrence in particular is the poorest city in Massachusetts with an average household income of half the state’s average.

In a statement released at a press conference on Friday, Columbia Gas (a NiSource Company) said all impacted homes had been safely cleared of gas and power had been restored to “nearly all” the homes.

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The NTSB has begun investigating the event, and residents have already filed a class action lawsuit against the company. The lawyer associated with the case claims that even as Columbia Gas builds new pipelines elsewhere, its existing infrastructure is eroding. This may have been exacerbated by the pressure in the lines, which was reportedly 12 times higher than it is supposed to be, according to Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). Compounding the problem was a disconnect created by infrastructure that spans state lines: the high-pressure alert went to a control room in Ohio. In a filing to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities earlier this year, about 15% of Columbia Gas’s 5,000 miles of pipe in the state are leak prone. According to both this company and other utilities, Massachusetts has one of the oldest natural gas distributions systems in the US, with some parts built over a 100 years ago. In just 2016, replacing leak-prone pipes cost about $56 million.

“Many people are still hurting in the wake of last week’s disaster,” NiSource CEO Joe Hamrock said at the Friday press conference. “We owe it to this community to fully address the community’s needs and rebuild your trust in us.”

Company representatives were joined by Governor Charlie Baker, Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan, North Andover Town Manager Andrew Maylor, Adjutant General of the MA National Guard Gary W. Keefe, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency Director Kurt Schwartz, and public safety officials at the press conference and outlined the steps they will take in the coming days.

Hamrock said Columbia Gas’ recovery and replacement plan will:

  • aim to have service restored to all homes and workplaces by November 19;
  • bring immediate help to people who need it most;
  • replace and upgrade appliances and other natural gas equipment damaged in customers’ homes and businesses; and
  • provide the assurance of a safe and modern energy system, installed with the highest levels of scrutiny and accountability.

While private utilities confront the massive challenge of upgrading aging and failing infrastructure, they must prioritize the cost and difficulty of upgrades against the pressing safety concerns. They should not overlook Opportunity Zones as a route to government incentivized investment in low income communities, which have limited local resources such as Lawrence. This is not only a chance to improve the service and functionality of our infrastructure, but one to prevent the next disaster.

To learn more about Opportunity Funds, read the first installment in this series of blog posts:

As disasters increase, Opportunity Zones could turn the resilience investment tide