Thousands of Natural Gas Leaks Discovered in Boston
11/20/2012 - Boston University College of Arts and Sciences -
BOSTON, MA –The City of Boston is riddled with more than 3,000 leaks
from its aging natural-gas pipeline system, according to a new study
by researchers at Boston (BU) and Duke Universities.
appear this week in the online edition of the peer-reviewed journal
Environmental Pollution [Phillips, N.G.,
et al., Mapping urban pipeline leaks: Methane leaks across Boston,
Environmental Pollution (2012)].
new study comes in the wake of devastating fires fueled by natural
gas during Hurricane Sandy. Potential damage to gas pipeline
pressure regulators, caused by flooding in Hurricane Sandy, has
raised ongoing safety concerns in New York and New Jersey.
The researchers report finding 3,356 separate natural gas leaks
under the streets of Boston.
“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, associate professor in BU’s Department
of Earth and Environment and co-author of the study.
Nationally, natural gas pipeline failures cause an average of 17
fatalities, 68 injuries, and $133M in property damage annually,
according to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety
In addition to the explosion hazard, natural gas
also poses a major environmental threat: Methane, the primary
ingredient of natural gas, is a powerful greenhouse gas that
degrades air quality.
Leaks in the United States contribute to $3
billion of lost and unaccounted for natural gas each year.
“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.”
and Jackson’s teams collaborated with industry partners Robert
Ackley of Gas Safety, Inc., and Eric Crosson of Picarro, Inc., on
They mapped the gas leaks under Boston using a new,
high-precision methane analyzer installed in a GPS-equipped car.
Driving all 785 road miles within city limits, the researchers
discovered 3,356 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.
Like Boston, other cities with aging pipeline infrastructure may be
prone to leaks. The researchers recommend coordinated gas-leaks
mapping campaigns in cities where the infrastructure is deemed to be
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.
Lucy Hutyra, Assistant Professor and Max Brondfield, technician,
worked with Phillips on this study at Boston University.
PhD student Adrian Down, postdoctoral researcher Kaiguang Zhao, and
research scientist Jon Karr assisted Jackson with his research.
The study was supported by the Barr Foundation, Conservation Law
Foundation, National Science Foundation, Picarro, Inc., Boston
University and Duke University.
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