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Pipelines to Potholes: America's Ailing Infrastructure

Pipeline peril. After the San Bruno explosion, we look at questions about the nation’s infrastructure.

A natural gas line, the cause of the large explosion that killed at least seven people, lies broken on a San Bruno, Calif., road, Sept. 11, 2010. (AP)

Shocking scenes out of San Bruno California last week as, in the blink of an eye, a whole huge neighborhood went up in a massive fireball.  Multiple deaths, and 58 houses destroyed in a flash. 

The culprit: a natural gas pipeline buried under the town that erupted like a giant blow torch. 

The bad news:  there are towns all over this country sitting on risky gas pipelines. Sixty percent of US gas pipelines are more than four decades old. As of last year, some were still made of wood. 

We look at the San Bruno blast, the danger beneath our feet, and infrastructure issues in America.

-Tom Ashbrook


Will Kane, reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

Richard Kuprewicz, pipeline engineering expert, president of Accufacts, a pipeline safety company in Redmond, Washigton.

Robert Puentes, senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

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  • Zeno

    I have been watching the Vuelta a Espana bike race. The most astounding thing about the race is the beautiful highways throughout Spain. I don’t know if the whole country is the same, but wow!

    I’m used to driving on dangerous rubble and decay…so even the beautiful Spanish scenery could not compare to the beauty of those well maintained highways. I always wondered where they shot those new car advertisements.

    I have been driving under a highway underpass for ten years that is being held up by a pile of railroad ties because it is under threat of imminent collapse. It is now being fixed under the presidents infrastructure project.

  • jeffe

    That the San Bruno explosion even happened shows how our nations infrastructure is in serious decline and that the regulatory bodies of the government has failed. From the BP oil disaster to this gas explosion it’s a sign of neglect, which I think is criminal.

    If you ask me the Pacific Gas and Electric has committed negligent homicide.

    By the way BP and the Federal government are going to walk away from the clean up in the Gulf, what’s going on down there is criminal. They are white washing the whole thing and the Obama administration is enabling BP to do it.
    Some change Obama.

  • Steve V

    Obviously maintenance of infrastruture has not been an American priority. We’re really good at building things. Maintaining them, not so good. What we are seeing is simply the result of decades of neglect. Since we did not maintain our infrastructure when we were flush with money, what will we do now that there’s no money available? I suggest we’ll struggle along from one crisis to another, patching things up as they fail.
    Perhaps we could start a new television program, “American Dysfunction”.

  • jeffe

    I’m sorry but PG&E are negligent. They came out with this bogus statement as if they are not responsible, it’s the American way, never take fess up. People were complaining of smelling gas for a few weeks up to this massive explosion. PG&E did nothing.

  • Alex

    “Obviously maintenance of infrastruture has not been an American priority.”

    Since I came to America in 1996, I don’t remember a single day when I drove on I-95 or I-93 without passing or getting stuck at some sort of a construction site. The amount of construction work done on these two highways is staggering. Meanwhile the quality of the pavement is still pitifully bad. Any thoughts as to why?

  • http://www.brainmindinst.blogspot.com/ Peter Melzer

    I remember an incident about two decades ago. A Septa train in Philadelphia dropped one of its motors on the track while in service because the hinges were rusted through. The engineer was fired. Traces of drugs were found in his hair. Coming from Switzerland at the time, where locomotives can be a century old and perform flawlessly, the response did not seem to address the problem.

    The gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno is a stark reminder that the nonchallant attitude to maintenance has not changed.

  • cory

    Maintainence costs money instead of making money, that’s why there is so little interest in doing it. It is not sexy, and not profitable within the business cycle.

    Whatever it is, wait until it crumbles and hurts someone, then obfuscate and blame someone else and hope for the best.


    Our country is falling apart, literally and figuratively. I wonder how these “taxes stink” groups think our road, bridges & highway systems will be maintained. I guess the paving elves and steel-working fairies have their work cut out for them.


    Anyone who has ever driven by a road construction worksite knows that there are 6-10 guys watching one guy work. Maybe if the other 6-10 guys were actually working, we could get 6-10 times the amount of work actually done. It is not that we aren’t spending enough money. It’s that these are cushy jobs where the workers are overpaid, underworked, and we get stuck with the bill in terms of the actual cost plus the lack of more work getting done. Corporations don’t operate with this kind of inefficiency, but the government sure does.

  • Alex

    “Corporations don’t operate with this kind of inefficiency, but the government sure does.”

    Except when corporations are paid by the government. Then all bets are off. Look at the way the corporations operated in Iraq or the way they did the Big Dig. Nothing to write home about in terms of efficiency.


    Two other comments. I agree with Alex that corporations paid by the government don’t operate with efficiency and am just as upset with it as he is. That’s why we need less government as it is inherently inefficient. The other comment is that many of the government jobs are union jobs. Unions are notorious for getting inefficient work rules into practice, which is why the steel companies, the auto companies, and the government is basically bankrupt.


    Anyone who has ever driven by a road construction worksite knows that there are 6-10 guys watching one guy work. Maybe if the other 6-10 guys were actually working, we could get 6-10 times the amount of work actually done.

    So Mr Smith, are you an expert on constructions sites? There are safety regs to contend with (especially when working undergroud or in a hole) and sometimes one section of the job must be completed before the next stage can begin. Why do we feel we have to bash the folks who work by the sweat of their brows & in awful conditions? There is no respect for those who choose physical labor for their profession. They are easy targets.


    Chris M,

    If you believe that road crews operate the way they do because of safety regulations rather than protecting these jobs regardless of the cost to the tax payer, I have a bridge that I would like to sell you. Also, I will be happy to contract with you to paint the bridge. I’ll supply the 1000 painters required to do the work and send you the bill.

  • William

    Part of the problem is a government requirement for union labor. It great increased the cost of the Big Dig project.


    Having members of my family in the construction business(private)and having known workers (of both non and non-union persuation), I can tell you, yes, there are many regulations and requirements on a construction site that can hold up or delay work. You wouldn’t last a day.

    If your premise is that private business is more efficient and has less people trying to protect their jobs, I have a HUGE bridge to sell you. The issue with the Big Dig was Corporate Engineering & Construction companies cutting corners, using sub-par materials, and doing sub-par work on the government’s dime and less with Union shops. Gotta love that Corporate Socialism.

  • jeffe

    You have to ask why on earth are developers allowed to build houses on top of such a large gas pipeline?

    The people who lived there did not know?
    50K in compensation? Are they kidding?

  • Shane

    Is there a national high pressure pipeline map?

  • jeffe

    OK Tea party what are you going to do about infrastructure?
    If you keep cutting taxes and regulations how do we keep up with the safety? Or are you folks OK with 50+ houses blowing up, I mean if this was a car bomb you all would screaming bloody murder.

  • Denise Topper

    This is how they cut corners to hurt our safety. Just to make money. It is a moral issue.

    In Louisiana, there are some trades that are unionized. The workers have substantial training. So, a company comes in and under-bids the prices of the trained unionized workers. They have one person with a license and who is trained and then a crew at $12/hr. So, in the case of insulation of pipe lines suddenly a bid for $1 million for maintenance at a plant suddenly is bid at $400,000. The crews don’t speak English as a first language and there are safety issues for that on a chemical plant.

    The company is out of state, it is not their neighborhood. They just slap on the work. When OSHA or any inspection group comes in, they are warned so all the shoddy work is okay’ed. The former oil or gas worker who now is working for a regulating agency calls into the plant to warn them of a surprise visit. The Texas company goes back home, disbands the crew. And we are left with a shaky maintenance of pipelines.

    We need to clean house – require highly skilled and licensed workers on ALL the pipelines. And OHSA, and other regulating agencies have to make surprise visits and kick butt. I live down wind of these plants and particularly Cytex that makes cyanide and liquid ammonia could wipe out half of the region. By then the Texas company is back home and the blow out wouldn’t be enough to identify their poor work.

  • BHA

    My step-sister lives < 1/2 mile from the San Bruno explosion. They didn't hear it and from their house could only see the smoke over the trees. Then they walked down the the end of the road (Sneath and Sequoia). OMG! You can bet they are plenty nervous now.

  • Ray McIsaac

    Greetings Tom,

    RE: The infrastructure in Ireland, Ireland is almost bankrupt and taxes are very high. Maybe too high, Ireland may need a bailout from the EU ;)

  • B Bartel

    Life cycle costs are being increasingly taken into account.

    In Rhode Island, there is a new bridge going up that has stainless steel reinforcing steel in the river and galvanized reinforcing steel above that. The stainless steel and galvanized reinforcing steel is much more expensive up front, but considering future (reduced) maintenance costs, it made sense.

    So, there is some push towards that, but it is slow.

  • ThresherK

    “Corporations Don’t Operate With This Inefficiency”

    “It is not that we aren’t spending enough money. It’s that these are cushy jobs where the workers are overpaid, underworked, and we get stuck with the bill in terms of the actual cost plus the lack of more work getting done.”

    Gee, according to the NYTimes today: Companies may fail, but Directors are in Demand”.

    White collar executives’ “Efficiency” is just one more right-wing “Birthrighteous” quality. By all means, let’s take out this craze for austerity on manual laborers.

  • ThresherK

    Oh, and just before the show ended, our host stated that President Obama proposed something for infrastructure, and sounded almost incredulous and shocked relaying that “Republicans are pushing back against it”.

    Yes, the same response they’ve given to everything the President has said for over two years, since the convention and nomination (even that one time Obama said “Water is wet”, and John Boehner disagreed, and Politico, and Fox News–and therefore CNN and The Nighttime News–said “Democrats claim moisture-like quality exists in Water”). Can’t our host be at least wearily blase with the whole temper-tantrum schtick which is the GOP’s stock in trade now?

    This dovetails neatly with someone’s observation (the guest’s?) that people don’t value the things governments do, such as building and maintaining roads, like they used to.

    The entire Republican party is sh!tting all over the idea of government as doing something that needs to be done. (Those roads just pave themselves; bridges are a naturally renweing resource, like dandelions.) This effect is a feature of the post-Eisenhower Republican party, not a bug. And I’m waiting for someone from NPR to ask a Republican why anyone would vote for a Republican to get something done in the government.

  • roxanne

    There is good news. Obama recently released and wide-ranging transportation and infrastructure plan. Here is an article about it. http://transportationlaw.wordpress.com/2010/09/14/transportation-law-news-24/. He does plan repairing America’s infrastructure.

  • Dassit

    The larger point is that between the demise of the middle class and the loss of industry we no longer need the infrastructure we once enjoyed. As Americans move to Europe, Cuba, India and China for benefits this country no longer provides, our need for roads, bridges, pipelines, and the electrical grid will atrophy as we become a greener nation supported by local food and trades. I don’t see where there is a problem.

  • Scott Walker

    I am not worried about the state of the natural gas infrastructure; this equipment delivers a profitable commodity to the market, and the suppliers will do their best to protect their business. On the other hand, I DO fear for the safety of our drinking water networks. When these systems fail, it is not sudden or dramatic. But the recent California casualty count could be dwarfed by any failure in a large urban water system; remember cryptosporidium in Milwaukee?

  • http://www.examiner.com/sf-in-san-francisco/san-bruno-heroes-saved-elderly-gas-leak-likely-photos-video Sheila OConnor

    Nice to see there were some heroes in the San Bruno fire and explosion. I wrote about them here: http://www.examiner.com/sf-in-san-francisco/san-bruno-heroes-saved-elderly-gas-leak-likely-photos-video

  • jeffe

    I am not worried about the state of the natural gas infrastructure; this equipment delivers a profitable commodity to the market, and the suppliers will do their best to protect their business.

    I guess BP missed that memo.

  • Sam Wilson

    ‘….Maybe too high, Ireland may need a bailout from the EU ;)
    Posted by Ray McIsaac, on September 15th, 2010 at 11:56 AM”

    But atleast people in large wont loose their lives in “untimely and unexpected manner” for sometime.

    Its an odd comparison, as there are countries who exceed Ireland in National Debt.

    Gross debt as percentage of GDP
    2007 2011 Forecast
    Austria 62% 82%
    France 70% 99%
    Germany 65% 85%
    Greece 104% 130%
    Ireland 28% 93%
    Italy 112% 130%
    Japan 167% 204%
    Netherlands 52% 82%
    Portugal 71% 97%
    Spain 42% 74%
    United Kingdom 47% 94%
    United States 62% 100%
    Asia1 37% 41%
    Central Europe2 23% 29%
    Latin America3 41% 35%

    Take it easy!

  • Piker

    Is a tragedy what happened and terrible that peopole lost thier lives. Whats worse is other people not knowing or caring about the facts and calling others negligent or saying it was homicide before the cause is even known. There are hundreds of workers in the gas business that work hard every day trying to maintain the natural gas infrastructure. Have any of you calling it homicide even looked at the statistics? Natural gas transportation is risky, without question, however it is one of the safest modes of transportation in existince. How many of you drive yet we accept 60,000 deaths every year on highways?

  • http://www.floorlampinfo.com Floor Lamp :

    government jobs are still the best when it comes to job security ‘`;

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