More Than 3,000 Natural Gas Leaks Discovered In Boston’s Aging Pipeline System, Finds New Study

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There are more than 3,000 leaks in the natural-gas pipeline system that serves the City of Boston, according to new research from Boston University and Duke University.


The new research is following on the heels of the devastating fires that were caused by natural gas leaks during Hurricane Sandy. Safety concerns have been raised because of potential flooding damage that may have been done to the gas pipeline pressure regulators located there.

As a result of the research in Boston, more than 3,356 separate natural gas leaks under the streets of Boston were found. “While our study was not intended to assess explosion risks, we came across six locations in Boston where gas concentrations exceeded the threshold above which explosions can occur,” said Nathan Phillips, co-author of the study, and an associate professor in BU’s Department of Earth and Environment.

In the U.S., natural gas pipeline failures kill an average of 17 people every year, cause 68 injuries, and cause around $133 million in property damage, according to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Natural gas leaks are also a major environmental problem because natural gas is almost entirely methane, a very-potent greenhouse gas that also lowers air quality. The leaks are also simply a significant loss of resources. Over $3 billion of natural gas is lost every year in the U.S. due to leaks.

“Repairing these leaks will improve air quality, increase consumer health and safety, and save money,” said co-author Robert B. Jackson, Nicholas Professor of Global Environmental Change at Duke. “We just have to put the right financial incentives into place.”

The researchers conducted the research by using a “new, high-precision methane analyzer” installed in a GPS-equipped car to map the gas leaks under Boston. They then drove over all the 785 road miles within the city limits, discovering the 3,356 known leaks.

“The leaks were distributed evenly across neighborhoods and were associated with old cast-iron underground pipes, rather than neighborhood socioeconomic indicators. Levels of methane in the surface air on Boston’s streets exceeded fifteen times the normal atmospheric background value.”

Boston’s not unique in these regards, though — most other aging cities around the globe have old pipeline infrastructure that is likely to be leaking. The researchers are highly-recommending that ‘coordinated gas-leaks mapping campaigns’ be developed in cities where the old infrastructure is likely to be a significant risk. “The researchers will continue to quantify the health, safety, environmental, and economic impacts of the leaks, which will be made available to policymakers and utilities as they work to replace and repair leaking natural gas pipeline infrastructure.”

The new research is being published this week in the online edition of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Pollution.

Source: Boston University College of Arts and Sciences
Image Credits: Boston University College of Arts & Sciences

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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