The terrible gas explosion in New Jersey on Tuesday serves as a stark reminder to consistently emphasize proper safety procedures when working around natural gas.
While details surrounding the explosion are still unknown, the outline presented so far is sadly typical.
It appears a contractor, hired by Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G), may have accidentally damaged a gas line. PSE&G employees were rushed to the scene, but about an hour after they began repair attempts, the explosion occurred, killing one person, injuring seven, and damaging dozens of homes.
As the former government official in charge of energy transportation at the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), we must do all within our power to eliminate incidents such as this. While at PHMSA, we created and rolled out the national 811 single-call system for assistance in locating utility lines, and it has been a huge success. Even so, more remains to be done and the country needs a comprehensive plan which fully leverages advances in technologies and the best tools available to create a "gold standard" for our utility professionals.
Too often, the lack of knowledge for exact locations of underground gas lines leads to workers accidentally damaging lines. In response to this continuing problem -- caused in part by poor record keeping and the loss of accurate information due in part to the simple passage of time, among other reasons -- I have called for a national effort using sophisticated GPS mapping technology to create an accurate "underground map" of every line in our country.
Our vast government and private investments for research and development should be put to use, rather than letting them remain speculation and hearsay. By requiring increased implementation of new technologies tied to detailed procedures, we can increase safety for everyone involved, from utility personnel and construction workers to the general public. The solution to ensuring safety is not ambiguous. It is an easy path forward. And it's the responsible solution.
Human beings are not perfect and, sadly, accidents can and will happen. But there is a solution, and that solution can dramatically reduce the number of these types of incidents. We must embrace and leverage new ideas and speed the deployment of new technologies into the field. Current products are available, yet they await adoption by the industry. The time for waiting has come to an end and the time for action has come.
If we understand the true risk involved in working with natural gas we will all see the necessity to do everything in our power to make any such similar accidents extremely few and very far between.
Follow Brigham A. McCown on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bamccown