The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Aging U.S. infrastructure:
A ticking time bomb

Jul 23, 2007

On July 18, a steam pipe exploded under a crowded street in Manhattan. A massive eruption of steam, water, mud, asbestos and other debris tore through the pavement, killing one person and injuring 41 others.

The loud explosion, the darkening of the sky, the debris and soot falling on the streets made people think New York was encountering another terrorist attack like 9/11. Not to worry, said New York Mayor Michael Bloomerg, rushing to calm people, “There is no reason to believe whatsoever that this is anything other than a failure of our infrastructure.”

For people who live and work above a 105-mile network of steam pipes, aged and neglected, prone to explode any given day, it wasn’t much consolation!

The pipe that burst was installed 83 years ago and clearly hasn’t been repaired for decades. The proof is that it was still wrapped in asbestos. Since a ban in the mid-1970s, asbestos on pipes is replaced every time a pipe or the street over it is repaired.

Many of New York’s steam pipes, which provide both heating and cooling to residential and commercial buildings, are even older than the one that burst. The system is operated by Consolidated Edison (Con Ed), which also provides electricity to New York. After major blackouts in 2003 and 2006, Con Ed was criticized in a Public Service Commission report for not maintaining its power system properly.

The same is certainly true for its steam system. Steam leaks are a daily occurrence in the streets of Manhattan, and explosions are not so rare either. One in 1989 killed three people, and there have been many others since then. If these explosions don’t always make the national news, it’s only because they are so ordinary.

A number of other major U.S. cities, including Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, have similar steam pipe systems. And just as in New York, many parts of these pipe systems are not only past their expected life, but also very poorly maintained. A pipe explosion near the White House in Washington in 2004, for example, badly injured two workers.

What about cities that don’t have steam pipes – are they any safer? Not at all – because the infrastructure is crumbling in every city. What big U.S. city in recent years has not experienced a power failure? And if not that, then it’s pavements collapsing under rain and snow, levies caving in during storms, roads and bridges buckling in the heat ... you name it.

But it’s not heat, rain, snow, storms or earthquakes – these known, predictable natural events – that cause the failure of the infrastructure. It’s the lack of maintenance. Engineers and maintenance workers have certainly been warning of the dangers of such negligence. But in their endless drive to cut costs and maximize profits, companies running the different parts of the infrastructure have constantly ignored these warnings. And government officials at every level have let them get away with it.

Foreign-bred terrorism? No, the biggest danger hanging over our heads is made right here in the U.S., and brought to you by the capitalist system. It’s the ticking time bomb that the aging, neglected U.S. infrastructure has become.