Explosion prompts a call for infrastructure spending

Police respond to the scene of explosion and building collapse in the East Harlem (AP Photo/Jeremy Sailing)
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Investigators suspect a gas explosion caused this morning's East Harlem building collapse, and one councilman is arguing that the tragedy should prompt more investment in infrastructure.

"Initial reports from the devastating explosion in East Harlem cite a noticeable smell of gas immediately before the explosion took place," said upper Manhattan councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, the chair of the transportation committee, in a statement emailed to reporters. "This troubling concern comes just a day after the Center for an Urban Future released a report noting the dire need for mass infrastructural improvements to our city's gas lines, water pipes, roads and rails. Today's events demonstrate how real that need is."

It's not clear yet whether the suspected gas explosion was caused by a failure within the buildings, or whether it was caused by a larger infrastructure failure.

But as Rodriguez notes, there's little doubt that the city's gas lines are aging.

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Yesterday, the Center for an Urban Future reported that more than half of New York City's gas mains "were installed before 1960 and are made of unprotected cast iron, a corrosion prone material."

Gas mains are, on average, 56 years old. And, "largely because of leaks, over 2 percent of the gas Con Edison sends to its customers every year never makes it to its final destination."

New York City is heavily reliant on those creaky gas mains for heating and electricity and is and becoming even more so, thanks, in part, to the relative abundance of the relatively affordable natural resource.

Con Edison serves 833,000 customers in New York City, including the buildings involved in today's explosion, and "according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Con Edison experienced 83 leaks for every 100 miles of main in 2012. Corrosion was responsible for a total of 427 of these leaks.

National Grid, which has 1.2 million city customers, had "45 leaks per 100 main miles in 2012 and 68 total leaks caused by corrosion."

Failures in cast iron gas lines can cause explosions.

"With two reported deaths and over a dozen injuries, the human cost of inaction is clear," Rodriguez said. "If the necessary funding for these repairs and improvements is not granted by the federal and state governments, tragic occurrences such as today's may become more common in our city."

"I will work with Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Mayor de Blasio to push for more funding for our transportation infrastructure and will look to hold a hearing on the troubling reports from the Center for an Urban Future to see what more we can do as a city to make our future more secure," he went on.