There are certain perils—fires, major weather events, and so forth—that announce themselves clearly; others are more subtle, if no less hazardous. Things like gas leaks, electrical shorts and surges, and water leaks may not be as dramatic as a hurricane or nor’easter, but the damage they can cause can be staggeringly expensive. Let’s look at how residents, managers and building staff can recognize the signs of these utility-related hazards, and what they should do when they encounter them.
Along with the subway tunnels, water mains, and electrical cables, lurking beneath the city streets are some of the nation’s oldest gas lines. Periodically, these gas lines leak, and sometimes explode—as happened most notably and tragically on Second Avenue in the East Village in the spring of 2015. These lines comprise hundreds of miles worth of pipes—and that’s just the lines that Con Ed knows about—not the illegal link-ups that likely exist all around the city, and which the New York Post reported as the cause of the East Village blast.
Because of the preponderance of gas mains, and their relatively old age—the average age of a main in New York City is 56 years—any main could leak at any time. Indeed, according to the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Commission, New York is the fourth-ranked American city in total number of gas leaks since 1984, and Con Edison is the third most leaky gas company in the country from 2009-2013.
To be fair, these statistics do not take into account the sheer size and scope of the network of gas lines beneath the city streets. Con Ed operates one of the most complex electric power systems in the world, and also distributes natural gas to 1.1 million customers in Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and Westchester County, making it one of the largest gas distribution companies in the United States. With so much gas traversing the network of pipes, some leakage is inevitable. The trick is what to do when leaks occur to minimize any potential hazards.
“Con Edison last year began an aggressive public outreach campaign called ‘Smell Gas, Act Fast’ to urge people to immediately leave the area and call 911 or their utility if they suspect they may smell gas,” which smells like rotten eggs, says Joy Faber, a media relations spokesperson for Con Ed. “We also launched a public online map (www.coned.com/gasmap) showing current street gas leaks that have been made safe, and are under repair or being monitored.”