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What We Can Learn from the Allentown Explosion

There are 13,000 miles of aging cast iron gas pipelines across Pennsylvania.

We were all horrified by the Feb. 9  that killed five people and leveled a city block in Allentown.

For five hours, natural gas fueled the flames, as city and UGI officials scrambled to find a shutoff valve. Had the explosion occurred just half a block away, it would have been a school.

And that's the real tragedy. Throughout the Lehigh Valley--not just Allentown--there are miles and miles of aging cast iron pipelines, some of them more than 100 years old. If you live in Bethlehem, Easton or any of the boroughs, what happened in Allentown could easily happen to you.

WFMZ's Business Matters recently taped a program about the Allentown gas explosion, featuring Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski. The show aired Monday, March 28.

According to Hizzoner, there's virtually no regulation of aging pipelines carrying a highly flammable substance running right under our feet. Government regulators are very concerned about water pipelines, but a substance that can asphyxiate you or explode is basically ignored.

As a result, in the Queen City alone, Pawlowski reports responding to more than 100 gas leaks in the year before the explosion. In his six years as mayor, he's already been to three blast sites.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, the photo ops and hearings are already underway. In one Congressional roundtable, it was reported that there are 13,000 miles of aging pipelines in Pennsylvania, and no real plan to replace them, unless you feel like waiting 40 years. Pawlowski told Business Matters that the Lehigh Valley is the last area in the state slated for replacement of its pipelines.

Until that happens, and there is meaningful regulation on the state and federal levels, our fragmented local governments could respond with some meaningful changes to planning and zoning ordinances.

First, they could adopt ordinances creating "consultation zones" near major pipelines, requiring reports from utilities about the potential adverse impact of any development near a pipeline--especially schools, churches or multi-family developments.

Second, they could require full disclosure of any natural gas pipelines, including their age, running under any property conveyed. If any pipeline exists, an ordinance could call for a safety inspection.

The argument against this kind of regulation, even on a local level, is that it kills jobs. But regulations also save lives. Isn't that a little more important?

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