Sean Sellers was standing outside his Tacony home in January, a strong smell of natural gas in the air, pointing out the bubbles escaping through cracks in the street to a utility worker.
"Then I saw a bright-orange flash and, a split-second later, boom," he said. The explosion knocked him on his back, which was lucky: "There were bricks flying past my head."
The blast, caused by a leak in a 68-year-old cast-iron pipeline, killed Mark Keeley, 19, a Philadelphia Gas Works employee sent next door to try to fix the leak, and put six others in the hospital.
The explosion leveled an adjacent chiropractic office, broke windows for two blocks around, and tore the front wall off Sellers' home. "It looked like a geyser," he said, "a geyser of fire."
Despite a long history of accidents, and a stack of warnings from safety investigators, there are still thousands of miles of antiquated, leak-prone, cast-iron pipelines running under the streets of Pennsylvania cities and towns. Some are more than 100 years old.
Just three weeks after the Tacony blast, another massive gas explosion, in Allentown, destroyed eight homes and killed five people, including a retired couple and a 4-month-old baby. This one, too, was caused by a leak in an aged cast-iron pipeline, installed in 1928.
When it comes to natural gas pipes, these failing older utility lines pose the greatest safety hazard in Pennsylvania and the rest of the country. Although the dangers have been known for decades, utilities have been moving slowly to replace the lines, and there are no rules requiring them to move faster.
Last week, state utility regulators charged PGW with a number of safety violations regarding the Tacony accident, near the intersection of Torresdale Avenue and Disston Street. One violation was for a broken valve that went unrepaired for five months.
For PGW, owned by the City of Philadelphia, more than half of its 3,000 miles of gas mains are still made of cast iron, the highest percentage of any utility in the country. The city also ranks first in the share of pipeline installed before 1960.
At the current replacement rate, about 18 miles a year, it will take PGW 85 years to get rid of all the cast iron. "If we had our druthers, we'd replace all the pipe tomorrow," said Randall Gyory, PGW's senior vice president for operations.
But that's not practical, he said. The cost would be about $1.6 billion. As it is, Gyory said, replacing iron pipes eats up 60 percent of PGW's capital budget every year.
In the meantime, these pipes keep leaking. A look beneath the surface of Philadelphia's streets reveals a PGW system where potentially fatal hazards are commonplace, and utility workers have to race to keep them in check:
Philadelphia has more than 2,000 leaks in its gas mains every year - most of them during cold weather, when frost causes the ground to buckle and the pipes to bend. During 2009, leaks spiked to more than 2,600.
By far, the most dangerous leaks happen when the old mains actually rupture, as happened in the Tacony accident in January. Each year, the city averages more than 300 such main breaks.
Philadelphia has some of the oldest gas pipes still in service in America. Nearly a quarter of them were put in the ground before 1920 - and 10 percent date from the 1800s.
More than 1,100 blocks in Philadelphia are served by gas mains that have broken three or more times, according to one 2007 report. At that time, there were still 57 blocks where the mains had broken five or more times.
The utility declined to reveal the locations of these leakiest pipes, citing the need to protect the system from terrorists.
Still, a map in a 2008 consulting study showed so-called hot zones of leak-prone gas mains scattered throughout the city's neighborhoods, including Fairmount, East Oak Lane, Kensington, and Kingsessing.
This block-by-block tracking system - used by PGW to prioritize its pipe replacements - doesn't always prevent accidents. There had never been a pipeline break in that block of Disston Street before the January accident, PGW said.
Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, in its safety complaint on the Tacony accident, said the utility had not been recording enough details on the condition of its pipes - including how badly they were corroded.
As is the case with pipelines across the country, most of the responsibility for checking the safety of these old, failing, cast-iron pipes falls to the utilities themselves. Government safety checks are mostly handled by thinly staffed groups of state agencies; Pennsylvania has just eight PUC inspectors to cover the whole state.
And the federal safety agency - the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a small office within the Department of Transportation - was criticized this fall for its weak oversight of state safety programs.
Promising to do better, the federal agency last week began a series of utility safety audits - beginning in Pennsylvania. The agency's first stop was UGI Utilities Inc. in Allentown.
"We need some more regulation," said Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, who after the accident became a national voice for tougher rules. "And if the state isn't going to do it, I'm going to keep fighting at the federal level to put regulations in place. Because I'm scared."
'The Twilight Zone'
In Allentown, on the night of Feb. 9, there was no smell of gas, no warning that a pipe was leaking.
When it blew up, at 10:45 p.m., the force ripped free the front door frame of Donald O'Shall's home and sent it flying, striking him in the head. O'Shall thought a bomb had gone off.
"It was tremendously loud," he said. "It's like the whole world jumped."
O'Shall, 61, a locksmith on disability due to cancer, rushed outside to find his neighborhood in ruins. "It was like something from 'The Twilight Zone,' " he said. "It was like seeing a desolate, war-strewn neighborhood. There was debris everywhere."
Killed in the blast were William Hall, 79, who was retired from a bank; his wife, Beatrice, 74; and three people next door - Ofelia Ben, 69; her granddaughter, Katherine Cruz, 16; and Cruz's son Matthew, just 4 months.
More than 600 were evacuated, and the fire burned for four hours.
O'Shall said he was glad the pipeline exploded late in the evening. That way, he said, there was no one at the school bus stop on the corner.
"If it had been the daytime, it would have been horrendous," he said. "Don't get me wrong. It was bad enough as it was. Five people died. Eight homes were destroyed. We lost everything we had. Everything."
Mayor Pawlowski says his fire department routinely scrambles on gas leaks.
He has been pushing UGI to move faster on getting the old pipe out of the ground.
After the Allentown accident, UGI said it would replace six miles of cast-iron pipe in Allentown, double what it did last year, leaving the city with 73 miles of cast-iron pipe. Replacing the pipe costs UGI about $650,000 a mile.
At its current pace, it will take UGI more than a decade to replace all the cast-iron lines in Allentown.
"That's insane to me," Pawlowski said. "They're making some additional effort this year, but honestly, I think it's way too little, and it's way too late."
He said UGI wouldn't even provide the city with a detailed map of the old pipelines.
"They showed me a map once on my desk," Pawlowski said. "They quickly rolled it up and took it back."
Since 2001, UGI's three utilities in Pennsylvania replaced a total of 189 miles of cast- or wrought-iron mains, the company says.
"We continually evaluate our protocols to ensure we are making prudent decisions regarding our natural gas pipeline replacement program," a company statement said.
A report on the cause of the blast still hasn't been released. The Edison, N.J., lab that studied the mangled pipe was hired by UGI, standard practice in Pennsylvania.
"We don't have the resources to do it," said Jennifer Kocher, a PUC spokeswoman. She said that the labs were "independent" and that their findings were just one piece in the PUC's evaluation about what went wrong.
The PUC declined to make public the lab report from Allentown, saying it was part of a larger investigation.
A record of warnings
Cast-iron pipelines can operate without trouble for many decades, so long as they aren't disturbed. But as they age, they can become more brittle and susceptible to problems: cracks from frost, leaks from joints, buckling from the pressure of street traffic.
"It's damn amazing they should have lasted that long," said Don Deaver, a pipeline-safety consultant from Texas.
Smaller cast-iron pipes are particularly fragile - and the most dangerous. PGW still has more than 1,000 miles of smaller cast-iron mains in its inventory.
Studies have shown old cast-iron pipes are "highly and disproportionately" involved in serious accidents, said Jeffrey D. Wiese, a top pipeline-safety regulator with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, speaking at an industry conference.
In 1986, the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates some pipeline accidents, said that leaks per mile in old cast-iron lines were increasing and that utilities should begin phasing out the pipe.
Before this year, cast-iron pipe failures have caused other deadly accidents, in both Philadelphia and Allentown.
Since 1985, 11 people were killed in natural gas accidents in Philadelphia - eight of them involving cast-iron mains, according to PGW.
The worst came in May 1979, when seven people were killed and 19 injured in an explosion that blew apart George's Bar & Restaurant at Tacony and Margaret Streets. In 1985, three people died in a blast that wrecked four rowhouses on North Mascher Street in West Kensington.
Both times, the mains cracked when leaking water eroded the ground underneath, leaving them hanging in the air unsupported. When that happens, the old cast-iron pipes are much more likely to crack than ones made of modern steel.
Fire officials also said they found a water-main break near the location of the 1942-vintage, 12-inch cast-iron gas main that caused the January explosion in Tacony, though the investigation results weren't complete.
In Allentown, a main snapped in August 1990, about a mile from the one that blew up this year, touching off an explosion that destroyed two rowhouses and killed a 44-year-old woman. Leaking water pipes were implicated in that incident, too, but the NTSB said the four-inch gas pipeline, dating from 1903, was so badly corroded that failure was "inevitable."
In that report, the NTSB laid blame on the "failure" of UGI Utilities to adequately monitor its pipelines and replace sections weakened by corrosion. It warned that the city was still riddled with century-old, cast-iron gas lines and leaky water pipes that had created dangerous, hidden sinkholes underneath them.
But UGI didn't exactly rush to respond to the NTSB's warnings. In the decade after that report, UGI replaced 55 miles of cast-iron pipe - 17 fewer miles than it had done the previous decade, company figures show.
A similar lack of urgency has pervaded the entire utility industry, according to the NTSB, which said the industry was not doing nearly enough to protect the public from dangerous pipelines.
For many utilities, the NTSB said, safety inspections consisted of workers' scraping suspect pipes with a knife to see if they were soft enough to produce shavings. When the pipes leaked, most utilities "normally do little more than install a leak clamp around the crack and keep the pipeline in operation."
Top executives at UGI and PGW say they work diligently to keep their pipes safe. "It's a core value of our business," said Daniel Adamo, a UGI spokesman, "and we take it very seriously."
Gyory says PGW moves aggressively to respond when people report smelling gas. In more than 97 percent of all reports of possible leaks, PGW has crews on the scene in less than an hour.
For gas utilities in places like Philadelphia, with vast miles of aging, brittle mains under their streets, winter is the anxious season. The best utilities can do is try to manage the leaks - and, when they happen, rush to plug them before an explosion.
At PGW, they move workers to the "leak-management" team and step up their so-called frost surveys. Every three years, PGW workers walk the whole city, looking for leaks.
In deciding which pipelines to replace first, PGW uses a formula that takes into account the size of the pipe, its age, and most important, how many times it has leaked before.
"They're rolling the dice with that old pipe in the ground," said Bob Ackley, owner of Gas Safety Inc., a Massachusetts firm that performs gas-leak surveys.
With so many miles of leaky pipe, and so few being replaced every year, Ackley said utilities' assurances of safety ring hollow. "They say the system is safe. They usually say it right after someone gets killed."
A push for more safety
After the Allentown explosion, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to the city and, standing at the site of another deadly gas explosion in 1994, called for stronger safety rules - including an effort to step up replacement of older, riskier pipelines.
"People shouldn't have to worry when they flip a light switch in their kitchen that it could cause an explosion in their front yard," he said.
But nothing on the horizon in Washington or Harrisburg would force utilities to move faster.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) pushed through a measure that would require utilities to make reports on their progress on replacing cast-iron pipelines, and for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials agency to check up on them. But the agency's report isn't due to Congress for two more years.
The idea, Casey said, is to focus more attention on the utilities' performance and spur public pressure. He had pushed for more frequent reporting requirements, but they were stripped out of a compromise version.
"I think they have to take more responsibility than they have to date," he said in an interview. "A company like UGI would be wise to really focus on the outrage that people feel and the demand for change."
As for why there's no timetable for replacing the pipe, Casey said: "Sometimes, it's what you can pass and what's achievable."
Cost has been a formidable obstacle.
It's a particularly high hurdle for PGW, which serves the poorest big city in the country and already charges the highest gas bills in the state. The utility's past financial troubles mean it is still saddled with big debts that make borrowing more expensive.
Rina Cutler, a deputy mayor, says the city would like to move faster - but isn't sure PGW's customers could tolerate the added cost. "Whether we're talking about gas mains or water mains or roads or bridges, the infrastructure is crumbling fast," Cutler said, "and no one seems to want to figure out how to fund it. And it's disgraceful."
But there appears to be little appetite in Congress for providing money to replace these failing natural gas pipelines.
"That is a Philadelphia problem," said U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, a Republican from south-central Pennsylvania, and chairman of a subcommittee that oversees pipeline safety.
"If the people of the city of Philadelphia care about that, they ought to act on it," Shuster said. "It's going to cost a lot of money. It shouldn't be something forced on consumers by the federal government."
Four years ago, State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) proposed a $1 billion loan fund for utilities to replace old pipes and other ancient infrastructure, but it went nowhere.
"As usual, the problem is no one pays attention to this stuff until someone gets killed," Evans said. "This is out-of-sight, out-of-mind."
The state House this year passed a bill that would allow utilities, with PUC permission, to apply a surcharge to bills to pay for replacement of the old lines.
That would allow utilities to recover costs without going through a long, expensive rate-hike proceeding before the PUC; a similar method is already in place for Pennsylvania's water utilities.
The bill is now before the state Senate, which is expected to take up action in January.
Once again, the measure has drawn opposition from some legislators and consumer advocates, who say they would give gas companies a way to raise customers' bills without having to justify it.
Irwin A. "Sonny" Popowsky, Pennsylvania's consumer advocate, says the law is flawed; he thinks it would allow utilities to use the surcharge as a backdoor way to boost profit.
If legislators were serious about boosting safety, he said, they would also require utilities to step up the pace of their cast-iron replacement - not allow them to set their own schedule. "The bill would allow them to continue with business as usual," he said.
Last month, the PUC said it wanted utilities to file new plans by next summer on how it would manage the risks of the cast-iron pipe - including a timetable to replace them altogether.
But neither the legislation nor the new PUC rules would require utilities to do the work faster.
"The companies want to do this," said Terrance Fitzpatrick, president of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, a utility lobbying group. They'll move more quickly if they have an easier way to recover costs, he said.
Pennsylvania's utilities, he said, have done "a reasonable job" in replacing the old lines. "I do think we can do better, though."
Pawlowski said utilities like UGI could afford to invest more in replacing their old pipes. UGI reported $232 million in net income last year. PGW reported net earnings of $58 million.
"Though I understand the economics, I think safety has to trump here," the mayor said. "This is something that keeps me up at night."
Many of the Allentown victims are still putting their lives back together. Some have received settlements from UGI. Other legal cases are pending. Adamo, the UGI spokesman, said the company had worked "diligently" to try to help the victims.
"We were very proactive, reaching out to the families, going door to door, expediting our claims process," he said.
Since the explosion in February, O'Shall has been a vagabond. For a few nights, a Comfort Inn put him up for free. Then, his employer rented him an apartment. Finally, with money raised by a charity drive, he bought a foreclosed and vandalized house in Florida, near one of his sons.
"They were giving it away for next to nothing, and next to nothing was what I had left from the collection money," he said.
He says that he misses Allentown but that his new town has a big plus: "There's no gas lines anywhere. That's good."
Contact staff writer Joseph Tanfani
at 215-854-2684 or firstname.lastname@example.org.