06/26/2014 06:45 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2014

Aging Utilities Killing Americans and Their Future

About a hundred first responders are meeting in Long Beach, California this week to discuss -- among other things -- the state of the nation's infrastructure. The Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Region V local leaders learned from National President, Michael Langford, that the lives of workers and consumers are endangered by the country's aging utility infrastructure. Utility workers employed by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) probably don't need this lesson, unless they believe that the pipeline failings that caused the 2010 San Bruno disaster are unique to California.

On September 9, 2010, a gas line that PG&E insisted was seamless and safe, burst along one of its 60-year-old seams. The explosion killed 8 people, injured dozens and flattened 55 homes. Langford explained that 60-year-old infrastructure isn't even that old, "The pipe that burst in Harlem," -- referring to the Consolidate Edison (Con Ed) explosion this past March, which likewise killed 8, injured 70 and flattened a Manhattan neighborhood, "was in the ground 127 years."

There are so many old leaky gas pipes in the U.S. that the methane lost into the atmosphere each year is the equivalent of the emission from 120 million automobiles. A Green Cambridge Program, Home Energy Efficiency Team, estimates that leaks in the Massachusetts cities of Cambridge and Somerville alone are equal to 10,000 cars' annual emissions. And methane gas doesn't just do 32 times the damage to the atmosphere that carbon dioxide does and have a tendency to explode, it's also a valuable finite resource fueling millions of homes and businesses.

Langford's message to west coast labor leaders was simple; "Repair America," and the benefits will be manifold. Repairing America is a jobs program, a safety program, and environmental protection program, and it would improve American's manufacturing sector.

Citing a 2013 American Society of Civil Engineers report card on U.S. infrastructure, Langford said that a D+ was not a satisfactory grade for the world's wealthiest nation. Langford explained that workers and ratepayers are paying the price with their livelihoods and their lives.

Langford reminded the water workers in the room that American Water didn't shut off the contaminated water going to West Virginia homes because "their pipes leak 38% of the water during transmission. If they had shut the water off, there wouldn't have been adequate water pressure to fight fires and flush toilets," for days after the water started flowing again. So rather than protect consumers from poison water, they let a deadly chemical flow unabated into homes, schools, and restaurants.

West Virginia American Water hasn't cornered the market on wasting water. Langford explained, "Seven billion gallons of water are lost through leaky pipes every day." He looked out at his audience and asked; "California and Arizona are having droughts right now, aren't they?" The grouped groaned in affirmation and Langford went on, "Most third world nations have people dying without water and we waste seven billion gallons a day."

But the waste isn't confined to pipelines: America is also losing its edge through its power-lines. Citing a 1200-mile length of transmission line, Langford compared Chinese energy efficiency to U.S. efficiency. The U.S. has 765,000-kilowatt capacity while the Chinese have a million kilowatts. Additionally, the Chinese lines lose 7% of their power in transmission while the U.S. loses a whopping 80%. Langford asked his audience to forget about building anything new for a moment and to, "Imagine what we could do for the economy and the environment just by repairing power-lines and pipelines."

As for what has caused the neglect of the nation's public utility infrastructure, for Langford it's clear that utility companies have chosen, "profits over people, profits over our communities."

Until the rights of workers and their families and ratepayers and their families become more important than dividends to stockholders Langford says nothing will change. Commenting on PG&E CEO Peter Darbee's $34.8 million severance package after his company blew up San Bruno, Langford opined, "They should have fined him 35 million and put him in jail for killing those people." With that a room full of workers with the expertise necessary to repair those lines erupted with applause.