Looking for Natural Gas Leaks in Westchester

Residential street in New Rochelle covered with mysterious markings.

Residential street in New Rochelle covered with mysterious markings.

Have You Seen Strange Street Markings?

If your street looks like it’s home to a graffiti artist, here’s a clue: Those mysterious street markings could be Con Edison’s way of identifying possible natural gas leaks. Artwork it is not.

In fact, many small, but potentially harmful, natural gas leaks under streets and sidewalks in Westchester are a growing problem, given aging infrastructure.  According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the leaks are mostly made up of methane gas, which is a “highly potent greenhouse agent that has a significant impact on our climate.”  EDF notes:  “In the first two decades after its release, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Both types of emissions must be addressed if we want to effectively reduce the impact of climate change.”

Con Edison usually repairs any major natural gas leaks right away, but millions of smaller leaks can go unfixed for years. These small leaks add up, becoming a major contributor to climate change, as well as a public safety problem. The New York State Public Service Commission–the agency that regulates Con Ed–says that for Westchester and nearby New York City and Long Island areas, way too many of the pipes carrying natural gas are leaky– they’re made from cast iron or other corrosion-and leak-prone materials, and many are more than 50 years old.

In September the Commission announced a “leak-prone pipe replacement initiative” coordinated with Con Ed, EDF, Pace Energy and Climate Center in White Plains, and others, to dramatically speed up the identification of methane leaks and reduce the backlog of unrepaired leaks.

Google Street View car fitted with special gas leak sensors.

Google Street View car fitted with special gas leak sensors.

Recently EDF and Google teamed up to gather key location data about the leaks, and to make that data more widely available in maps.  A handful of Google Street View cars have been fitted with air quality sensors to collect data from which Google is able to create detailed, user-friendly maps of places where natural gas is leaking. Gas companies then can use this data, which is faster and cheaper to obtain, to decide where to repair leaks and upgrade pipelines.

For example, on Staten Island, which was part of the project, cars with air sensors took methane readings between January and April 2014. The readings indicated an average of about one leak for every mile driven.

Map of Staten Island Methane Leaks

Map of Staten Island Methane Leaks

The map (at left) shows the leak rate at each location. Darker orange areas represent methane leaks with the “same near-term climate impact as driving a car between 1,000 and 9,000 miles every day.”

The project is still in demonstration mode– in just a few cities– but EDF has plans to expand the project in coming months and has set up an online advocacy campaign here.

Imagine if we could have a map of New Rochelle or Larchmont showing all the leaks. If you think your city or town has a lot of leaks, you can nominate it to be included in the project.

Images courtesy EDF.org and Matthew Grimm.

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