Workers Vanguard No. 1043
4 April 2014
U.S. Infrastructure: Ticking Time Bomb
East Harlem Gas Explosion
The five-story buildings at 1644 and 1646 Park Avenue in East Harlem were reduced to a three-story heap of brick and twisted steel after a horrific explosion, triggered by a gas leak, on March 12. The blast sent tremors across this heavily Latino and black neighborhood. All told, eight people died from smoke inhalation, severe burns or the crushing impact of the rubble, and over 60 were injured. A young woman who lived nearby described the scene: “We saw people flying out of the windows. Those are my neighbors.”
Consolidated Edison CEO John McAvoy immediately tried to evade culpability by grotesquely chiding the people of Harlem for not doing enough to report the gas leak earlier. In his words, a call alerting Con Ed to the problem nearly 20 minutes before the explosion “was a low priority” because more residents had not phoned. Also absolving the utility giant was New York City mayor and liberal darling Bill de Blasio, who offered that the explosion was “a tragedy of the worst kind because there was no indication in time to save people.” But outraged Harlem residents were not buying it: Con Ed is notorious for gambling with people’s lives, and the smell of gas is nothing new in the area.
In fact, one 1646 Park Avenue resident gave the lie to Con Ed’s attempts to blame the victims. By his account, since last fall several tenants had called to report the smell of gas. Around Christmas, the Fire Department stopped by the building to investigate. In the days leading up to the blast, “the gas smell was overwhelming.… It was hard to get from the front door to the apartment, that’s how bad the smell was. We had to open up windows to air it out.” The night before the explosion, his niece dialed 311 to again report the problem but could not get anybody on the line.
The simple truth is that East Harlem residents needlessly died due to the callous and criminal neglect of infrastructure on the part of the capitalists and their politicians, which is symptomatic of the country as a whole. Aware of the potential for disaster, Con Ed and the city rulers have made working people and the poor into proverbial canaries in the coal mine. But unlike the birds that miners always heeded, reports coming out of neighborhoods like East Harlem are all too often downplayed by officials. And although the technology to detect hazardous gas buildup is available, nobody in the lineup of City Hall, the utility company and landlords is about to foot the bill to put such detectors in every building. In a capitalist society, safety takes a backseat to profits. Witness the thousands of workers across the U.S. who lose their lives doing their jobs each year.
Much of the infrastructure of New York City dates back over a century. Poorer, mainly Latino and black neighborhoods like East Harlem are especially neglected and vulnerable. The cast-iron gas main serving the two collapsed buildings was laid in 1887. Old cast-iron pipe is a common source of gas leaks, especially in East Coast cities, and is not typically installed because it is brittle and susceptible to corrosion. Since the 1960s, the choice materials for natural gas delivery have been coated steel and polyethylene piping.
Soil tests at the blast site found gas concentration levels as high as 20 percent, indicating that a dangerous leak had fueled the explosion. Natural gas trapped below the street can move horizontally, finding its way into nearby buildings. National Transportation Safety Board investigators later found a leak at the eight-inch gas main, which had sections of both cast-iron and plastic pipe. One natural gas safety expert noted: “If I lived near an 1887 small-diameter cast iron main, I’m living next to a ticking time bomb.” Indeed, just a week after the Harlem explosion, a leak was discovered from a crack in a 108-year-old cast-iron main in the Bronx, forcing the evacuation of two apartment buildings.
New York City still has about 3,000 miles of cast-iron pipe delivering gas. Con Ed reported an astonishing 105,000 gas leaks in the city between January 2009 and the beginning of last month, 12,000 of which were due to corroded pipes, in company filings with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. And New York is just the tip of the iceberg. There are more than 1.2 million miles of gas-main pipes in the U.S. Last year, the number of reported gas leaks averaged about one for every eight miles of pipe. Widespread gas-line defects such as faulty welding were highlighted by the September 2010 pipeline explosion in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
A potential contributing factor to the fatal East Harlem gas leak reportedly was an earlier water-main break that undermined the soil, creating a sinkhole in front of the two buildings. The water main was installed in 1897, and the typical NYC water main is almost 70 years old. There have been nearly 400 water-main breaks annually since 1998.
The widely despised Con Ed—the city’s main energy trust and the oldest company on the NY Stock Exchange—has allowed its infrastructure to crumble. The money that should have been spent on maintaining and replacing pipes has instead gone toward boosting profits for the company’s private investors. Now the utility is under a modicum of pressure to replace its decrepit piping and service equipment, which it plans to do at a snail’s pace. Since issuing a 2010 “long-range plan,” Con Ed has replaced old gas pipe throughout NYC at a rate of 65 miles per year, which would take over 35 years to complete.
When it weighed in, the New York state Public Service Commission (PSC) pounded the table…and ordered Con Ed to make it 70 miles of replacement pipe per year, shaving a few years off the project. Contrary to the myth that government utility regulators like the PSC protect the “public interest,” the actual mission of such bodies is to help the utility companies achieve a satisfactory return on investment. That’s why a truly accelerated infrastructure upgrade program coming from the PSC is a pipe dream. In the meantime, the number of people who will die or be severely injured as a result of widespread gas leaks in the city is just another integer in the cost-benefit analysis, that is, the death calculus of capitalism.
Capitalist Rulers Let Infrastructure Rot
When American capitalism was in its ascendancy, the bourgeoisie allocated funds for major public infrastructure projects out of its own self-interest, such as providing efficient transportation for its goods and workforce. No longer. Since the 1970s, countless factories have rusted into the ground after the capitalist owners threw workers on the scrap heap and moved production elsewhere in a bid to boost flagging profit margins. Alongside the ravaging of the country’s productive forces, the capitalist rulers have scuttled maintenance of roads, bridges, transit systems, airports, power grids, dams and water supplies—the very things needed for society to function. Meanwhile, the life expectancy of the systems built in earlier times is either running out or well past.
New York City graphically highlights the state of infrastructure nationwide as well as the anarchic irrationality of the capitalist system. While the bourgeois media in the U.S. gets preachy about corruption or negligence when buildings or bridges topple in Third World countries, it is a different story when closer to home. Here in the financial capital of U.S. imperialism, 47 bridges have been found structurally deficient, old buildings collapse, construction cranes fall, underground steam pipes and electrical transformers explode and trains derail. Not to mention the flood-prone subways, where over one-third of signals have exceeded their “useful life.”
Our article “Capitalists Starve Infrastructure: Working People Die” (WV No. 897, 31 August 2007) recounted a similar list of disasters, including the explosion of an 83-year-old Con Ed steam pipe in Midtown Manhattan at the height of the evening rush hour and the sudden collapse of a Minneapolis bridge that killed 13. We noted: “For nearly four decades the government has slashed infrastructure spending so much that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2005 report card gives an overall grade of ‘D’ (poor) to the country’s infrastructure as a whole.” Eight years later, the ASCE gives an overall grade of “D+” and estimates that it would cost $3.6 trillion to bring infrastructure up to par.
In recent years, President Barack Obama has given lip service to repairing the nation’s aging infrastructure, at times promising money and jobs that have never materialized. When his latest proposal to fund highway and other improvements met resistance in Congress, Obama scolded Republicans who “just don’t want to pay.” But neither does the president, whose best offer is a drop in the bucket of what is actually needed. The fact is that Obama and other Democratic Party politicians, no less than the Republicans, represent the capitalist ruling class that has no interest in pouring money into the overhaul of decrepit infrastructure, because it doesn’t immediately benefit the bottom line.
For a Planned Socialist Economy!
Since the late 1990s, staffing at gas utilities nationwide has been cut by 20 percent while consumer demand has increased by 20 percent, leading to longer hours for utility workers, more service interruptions and slower response times during system outages. As of last year, Con Ed’s unionized workforce, represented mainly by Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 1-2, was at its lowest level in a decade. Management has not only undermanned the operation but also ruthlessly squeezed Local 1-2 members to work more for less, culminating in a lockout in 2012. With the city suffocating under a deadly heat wave at the time, Con Ed was more than willing to imperil the lives and health of the poor, sick, elderly and young in order to ratchet up the exploitation of UWUA workers.
When Superstorm Sandy inundated NYC and the surrounding area a few months later, Local 1-2 members were on the frontlines putting in long hours to restore electricity, not least in the poor and working-class neighborhoods that the city administration all but abandoned. Afterward, the union issued an “Assessment of Restoration Efforts” (February 2013) that detailed the damage done by Con Ed’s “run it until it breaks” mentality whereby “ongoing maintenance has been replaced by emergency repairs, which are conducted only when equipment fails.” The utility was inviting catastrophe, and it still is, by running its workforce ragged and turning a blind eye to “disintegrating” infrastructure.
In the report, though, the solution put forward by the Local 1-2 tops is to bolster the powers of the PSC, which is on the side of Con Ed. Similarly, the union bureaucrats preached reliance on that capitalist government agency as well as Democratic Party politicians during the lockout, which ended when Governor Andrew Cuomo intervened to make Local 1-2 members eat it (see “Cuomo, Con Ed Strong-Arm Union into Concessions,” WV No. 1006, 3 August 2012). Today, with 300,000 NYC public employees still working without contracts, the city labor officialdom is stoking illusions in the new mayor. But de Blasio’s “fiscally responsible” path to a “progressive agenda” means givebacks in return for long-delayed raises or back pay, however insufficient. Less staff, longer hours and the slashing of health benefits are an inherently unsafe combination for utility, transit and all the other workers pushed to the breaking point as they maintain the decaying infrastructure of New York City.
It is high time to replace the union bureaucracy with a leadership committed to mobilizing labor’s power independent of the state agencies and politicians of the class enemy. A fighting labor movement would enforce safety standards and shut down structures and facilities that endanger people, as well as insist on a massive program of public works. It would engage in struggle to organize the unorganized and for jobs for all through a shorter workweek at full union wages. Such battles must be directed toward ending the rule of the capitalist class that in its twilight has put a death grip on society.
It is not difficult to develop a rational plan to install and maintain modern pipelines in the city or to provide gas-leak detectors for every building to avoid man-made disasters like the East Harlem blast. But this won’t happen any time soon, if at all, since the capitalists and their political parties and government decide what gets done based on what maximizes profits. In 1977, after a citywide blackout brought about by inadequacies in Con Ed’s electrical infrastructure, we called for workers to expropriate Con Ed without compensation (see “Get Con Ed, Not the Ghettos,” WV No. 167, 22 July 1977). This demand was linked to the struggle to forge a revolutionary workers party that fights for a workers government.
The fatal explosion in East Harlem lays bare yet again the grim reality of capitalist America. The fundamental needs of society will keep going unmet as long as the capitalist order remains intact. The only way out of this impasse is for the proletariat to seize the productive wealth in society from the greedy and irresponsible bourgeois rulers and begin building a collectivized, planned economy based on social need, not profit.