Baltimore: Deadly Explosion and Aging Infrastructure

Image credit: Associated Press

Just days after a massive explosion in Beirut, Baltimore residents were shaken by an explosion that killed two, injured seven, and flattened three rowhomes. The exact cause of the blast in Baltimore isn’t known yet, but the primary suspect is aging gas lines. One resident reported that he thought he smelled gas before he left his house at 6 a.m. When he returned three hours later, his house had been blown to bits by the explosion. All he found was rubble.

Across the United States, in the last 19 years there have been nearly 600 so-called “incidents” (explosions) involving gas distribution lines where someone was killed or hospitalized. From 2000 to 2019, there have been over 1,000 people who have been seriously injured or killed in similar disasters.

In Maryland, natural gas leaks are common, with nearly two dozen discovered each day. This has been sharply increasing because of aging infrastructure that was built in the 1950s and 1960s. The private utilities company, Baltimore Gas and Electric (BG&E), knows that at least 15 percent of its gas distribution system is outdated. Half of its transmission mains are over 50 years old, and some pipe joints are still made out of jute – a vegetable fiber. More common are weak iron joints that are far outdated.

For BG&E, the longer they can use old infrastructure, the more profits they’ll get. For the rest of us, our lives are in danger from infrastructure that delivers essential services, but we have no say over how it is designed or maintained. Energy for cooking and heating should be designed with safety as the priority (and it should be guaranteed to every person regardless of ability to pay). That’s not on the table for BG&E or other private energy companies. The power to make that happen would require all of us – the people who live in these communities and who work on the utility lines – to have control over them, and have the financial and technical means to make the necessary changes. In other words, we’d have to organize to overthrow private owners like BG&E.