Last Tuesday, a College of Charleston dorm, Charleston Water Works, and the rest of a three-block section of downtown were evacuated as SCE&G crews worked to contain a gas leak on St. Philip Street. Unfortunately, gas leaks are becoming common occurrences in downtown Charleston. Over the course of the past year, there have been several similar events involving gas lines, including three separate events on Meeting Street within a week. While the local media seems content to report on each of these gas leaks, they never seem ask the most obvious question: Is Charleston's infrastructure in need of serious repair?
Electric and gas lines, along with water mains, are crucial to the functionality of any city, and a failure in any one line can cripple huge swaths of town for hours, if not days, causing a loss in wages for workers and a decrease in productivity for the businesses that employ them.
Power outages are the most common, but they're also most likely to bring work to a halt. Failures in the electrical grid can easily knock out a business' ability to perform even the most rudimentary operations. But while the power companies are quick to say that most outages are caused by inclement weather or the result of a squirrel or some other varmint choosing to gnaw on a line, they rarely mention that an aging grid may be a factor.
Meanwhile, a study by the Environmental Protection Agency states that there are almost a quarter of a million water main breaks each year in the United States. Water line breaks shut down traffic, preventing people from reaching school, work, and urgent care centers. In addition, a broken water main can stir up the same sort of pollutants that are a danger in flooding, a tragically common occurrence in Charleston. That same study from the EPA also notes that water line breaks increase as the age of a system increases.
But as potentially dangerous as these events are, the danger that comes from aging gas lines is perhaps far worse. In 2010, an aging pipeline in San Bruno, Calif., exploded, killing eight people, injuring almost 60 more, and doing damage to dozens of homes (the initial explosion leveled 35 homes alone). Granted, explosions like this are rare, but when they happen, they are certain to cause a tremendous amount of injury and damage. Often, the explosion is caused by a leak that is ignited before it can be located and shut off, and unfortunately, it seems like gas leaks are becoming commonplace in downtown Charleston.
All of this leads to one pretty straightforward question: What do we want our elected leaders to do about this? After all, it is not in the financial interests of the utilities to spend the money to inspect their lines and make repairs unless it becomes an absolute necessity.
Those of you who are around my age probably have fond memories of the late '90s classic Fight Club. What you may not remember is what the narrator's character was doing for a living before Tyler Durden took over his life. He worked for an automobile maker in a department charged with calculating whether the cost of recalling millions of cars was more than the cost of the potential lawsuits resulting from death and injury in those cars. This is essentially the same sort of profit-driven game that the utilities in the nation are playing with you today.
Following the San Bruno explosion, Pacific Gas & Electric managed to find $100 million in its coffers to help the families victimized by their negligence. One can only imagine that they considered that amount to be a drop in the bucket compared to what it would take to fully inspect or, perish the thought, update their pipelines.
More often than not, we are living on top of an aging infrastructure nearing the end of its original life expectancy, if not already past it. The dangers of failing to address the systematic failure of this hidden — and crucial — part of our infrastructure continues to grow. Unfortunately, it seems that only after a disaster strikes do corporations and governments feel urged to fix what's broken. As a result, it falls on the people to demand that their elected representatives step up and ask the utilities to inspect and repair their lines and water mains, with no increase in cost to consumers, or they risk losing their local franchise rights.
Is this an imposition on the "rights" of businesses? Is it possible that these repairs will cause a decrease in profits for these companies? Are those two things worth it if they possibly save lives? The answer to all three questions is yes. More importantly, the time has come for all of us to decide that the only question that matters is the third.