My mini-Silkwood moment: The other perils of gas leakage

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At about 7 am this morning, not long after I got out bed, I heard loud knocking on my door. Quizzical, I opened it to be surprised by the presence of a fully-equipped fireman asserting, “We have to evacuate all of you, now!”

Unaware of the nature of the emergency, but only expecting to be out for a few minutes, I slipped into a pair of jeans, threw on some shoes, grabbed my not-so-warm coat and stepped out. There was a strange smell in the corridor, but I brushed it off as our neighbor’s kitchen aroma. “At least there’s no smoke,” I thought.

Exiting the stairwell on the first floor, however, I realized that this incident was not trivial. All of the building residents were being led out to the street, and our stream was being met by other streams from neighboring buildings. The entire block was being evacuated to the end of the street. I don’t believe I have seen this many firemen all together at the same time; I must have walked past about thirty.

As I made my way up the street, I was greeted by an ominously loud roar, accompanied by the unmistakable smell of leaking gas. I do not have confirmation of the cause of the gas leakage yet. But I suspect that it has something to do with the ongoing construction for major water-pipe works. Although inadvertent, digging and construction is one of the leading causes of natural gas pipeline damage.

So, there I was on the street, under-dressed for the biting cold, a little disheveled, and totally unprepared for such a Thursday morning. Trying to enquire more, I found most officials at the scene reticent (and of course busy). Finally, one official suggested, “Get a bite to eat. This could take a while…”. So, though not quite ready for the day, I headed to work early. 

Residents being evacuated on my street, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

This could have been much worse, and I am very thankful it wasn’t. We weren’t awoken in the middle of the night. The leakage, though it was smelling up the block, had not caused any explosions. And as far as I knew, there were no injuries. Just two days ago, a pipeline explosion in New Jersey killed one resident, injured seven workers and damaged 55 condos. And there have been many gas explosions around the country in the past few years, including the high profile incident in San Bruno, California, in September 2010 that claimed eight lives.

I work on gas leakage issues; you can read more about that on my blog. Natural gas leakage releases potent global warming pollution (methane), and its leakage into the atmosphere can and should be significantly curbed, using cost-effective technologies available today. But its leakage can also cause serious safety concerns, particularly in and around communities. While utilities and oversight authorities are well aware of the safety issues, I am sure there is room to reduce risk further. Notwithstanding, moving away from all fossil fuels as quickly as possible, by boosting energy efficiency and renewable energy sources like wind and solar, would clearly and expeditiously mitigate both climate change and safety concerns.

As for my block, we don’t have any gas for cooking, heating or hot water yet – fingers crossed for ConEd. Gas leakage has sometimes kept me up at night, but today it literally dragged me out of bed and kicked me out the door!