Roughly this time last year, a block of apartments in East Harlem exploded suddenly, without warning, destroying two entire buildings in an instant.
Eight people died at 1644 and 1646 Park Avenue. NYFD was on the scene in less than two minutes, as is generally their custom, but there is little to be done after an explosion of that magnitude except prevent the fire from spreading. Fifteen apartments were destroyed in that blast, and the cause was conclusively ruled to have been a gas leak.
Fast forward to March 26 of this year. A man walks into a restaurant on the ground floor of one of the buildings to use the restroom, and immediately turns and runs from the overpowering smell of gas for his own safety mere seconds before the rubble would have come raining down upon him from this East Village apartment explosion.
Less than an hour before, ConEd had determined that gas piping work done, possibly for a service upgrade, by a contractor in the building was far short of acceptable standards and absolutely was not to be connected to the gas mains until it had been corrected and reinspected. Was the contractor’s work so shoddy that a leak large enough to cause an explosion of this magnitude was possible? If so, why was there gas flowing through those pipes, when they had been ordered to be corrected? Did Con Ed make a mistake during their inspection visit? Or is it simply a question of infrastructure aging?
Our thoughts are with those who lost their homes, their businesses, their health, and potentially their lives in this explosion. No one should ever have to suffer through such an experience. Property can be replaced or rebuilt, that’s by definition exactly what insurance is for, but lives cannot be brought back. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those injured in the blast at the lower east side. Please remember that renovation and repair work of any kind should be performed only by those who hold the proper credentials, licensing, and insurance. Lives and safety are of paramount importance and well worth any extra time it might take to wait for the professionals to do the work.
The morning after the apartment explosion rocked the East Village, there are still hot spots from the fire, and FDNY is still on scene, 200 people strong. A total of four buildings were impacted by this unnecessary explosion. Three were damaged to the point of complete collapse within hours. The fourth was heavily damaged by the fire. Bill DeBlasio’s edited statement follows, then keep reading for some further analysis of the problems we as a nation face in managing these sorts of risks.
Preliminary evidence suggests a gas-related explosion. That investigation is ongoing. The initial impact appears to have been caused by plumbing and gas work that was occurring inside 121 2nd Ave… The explosion here in the East Village affected four buildings. They are 119, 121, 123, and 125 2nd Avenue. The actual explosion occurred in 121, caused it to partially collapse, and 123 collapsed as well.
We appreciate Mayor DeBlasio sharing preliminary information with the public so quickly and putting to rest alternate theories about this apartment explosion. This is a time for an immediate response, and the City of New York and FDNY stood up and protected New Yorkers with their response. There also comes a time for reflection on the cause, and means of prevention in the future, and that time should begin immediately. Gas explosions in NYC and Northern NJ are sadly more common than they should be.
Why must these devastating explosions be commonplace, or acceptable as a risk of living in a densely populated area? We remember at least one gas line explosion in New Jersey that was directly caused by construction workers who didn’t pay attention to where the lines were. That caused an apartment explosion which destroyed an apartment complex. This doesn’t have to happen. As insurance professionals, we take fire safety seriously. As parents, we take seriously the task of teaching our children early on about fire safety. As responsible adults, we take the risk of fire seriously in our own homes and our own lives.
Why are we not holding Con Ed and those contractors who work on gas lines to the same standard? Why is the city we love falling down around its citizens? The Center For An Urban Future released a study in March of last year on the current state of NYC infrastructure, and it’s frankly terrifying. We noted a few relevant things from the study.
Faced with aging pipes, outmoded technology, and overburdened lines, utilities and government struggle…
- Over half of the gas mains in NYC are sixty-five years old or older
- Over half of the gas mains in NYC are made of cast iron, prone to corrosion and breakage
- Con Ed has 2,234 miles of gas mains throughout the city, which are on average fifty-three years old
- Con Ed pipes averaged 83 leaks per 100 miles of gas main in 2012, 427 attributable to corrosion
- Gas service pipes, carrying gas from mains to buildings, are one-quarter cast iron installed pre-1960
- Con Ed had 58 leaks per 10,000 services, 849 attributable to corrosion in 2012 alone
- Con Ed thinks an acceptable replacement schedule is 30 miles of cast iron pipe per year
- Half (the cast iron portion) of 2,234 miles of pipe is 1,117 miles
- At Con Ed’s pace, those cast iron pipes will finally be retired from service entirely by the year 2052
- I will turn seventy-four years old before Con Ed can even hope to claim they’ve resolved their infrastructure concerns
Why is untenable situation allowed to continue to exist, putting all New Yorkers in grave danger? One word: Money.
According to the same report cited above, one mile of gas main pipeline replacement in NYC costs anywhere between $2 million and $8 million dollars. Just to replace the half or so of the pipes that desperately need replacing will cost about nine billion dollars. The money has to come from somewhere, of course, Con Ed is a business which exists to make a profit. But in addition to profitability, they also have a safety mandate. Con Ed has approximately $674 million in cash on hand, and annual profits of about $1 billion. Some of that money could potentially be used towards a more ambitious replacement schedule.
They’ll need to spend about $10,000 per customer to do the minimally necessary work. NYC has a population of 8.4 million. An assessment or tax of some form on each resident of NYC (all benefit from the work, because all benefit from safety, even if they’re not Con Ed customers) of ten dollars a month would see the work completed and paid for in full with zero debt and zero city financing within nine years.
That assessment or tax of ten dollars a month is even less than the fifteen dollars a month an average NYC renters insurance policy costs. If each New Yorker chipped in three bucks a week, the city could be drastically less at risk of these seemingly annual gas explosions by 2024.
Yes, some of those 8.4 million people are children or otherwise not in employment and therefore perhaps not subject to such a tax. But it doesn’t cost $8 million dollars to replace every mile of gas line, it can be as low as $2 million, which evens that balance back out. It also doesn’t account for Federal or state grant money, which is quite possible for a project of this type, further reducing the cost per individual.
The current state of affairs is a sad one, and a dangerous one. As a resident of this fine state, I believe that it’s time to take decisive action to fix the largest safety risk facing New Yorkers today, and to protect New York families from the very real danger of gas line apartment explosions.
I believe in insurance, but I also believe in mitigating risk so as to lessen the chances of needing to use the insurance. But most of all, after watching the response from the city to this tragic explosion, I believe in the City of New York and her people.
Eric Narcisco, CEO