Despite the firehouse being only two blocks away from the San Bruno, Calif., gas line explosion, four people died, scores were injured, and numerous homes went up in flames, sparking fears among some residents that the same thing could happen in Bayonne if the proposed natural gas line is installed as planned.
At the public comment portion of the Sept. 22 City Council meeting, residents spoke out about their concern over a proposed gas line some plans would have run through residential neighborhoods of Bayonne and Jersey City.
Spectra Energy, of Linden, is proposing an expansion of existing gas lines, with new lines to run from Staten Island through Bayonne and Jersey City to provide gas to New York City.
“The best way to deal with that is to put the line somewhere it will do the least damage.” – Jason O’Donnell
California explosion raises readiness concerns
Citing the explosion of a similar gas line in San Bruno, Calif., Leonard Kantor – a retired police officer –expressed concern about the dangers to the 1st Ward through which the line will run, saying that local resources would not be able to handle a disaster of that magnitude.
“I do not believe, for the safety of residents, that we should allow the gas line to run through the Bergen Point area of the city,” he said. “The recent gas explosion in San Bruno is not the first one that has happened. Other states have had them, so has New Jersey. The company that wants to install these gas lines wants them to go in the most direct line to save material and time of construction. To them, it is all about money spent and forget about the general welfare of the residents of Bayonne.”
Kantor said such pipes suffer wear and tear over time.
Kantor said the pipe should be laid down at the bottom of the Kill Van Kull, where it would be less dangerous to residents and more easily maintained.
But he said putting it where is proposed poses a risk for residents.
“If you’re walking on that pipeline, you’re walking on an atomic bomb,” he said.
He said while inspectors may be required to make sure the gas line is maintained properly, Kantor said the infrastructure around the state, such as bridges and dams, are supposed to inspected, too, and are not.
A recent report by the Associated Press seems to bolster local concerns about the effectiveness of federal regulators to oversee these gas lines. A recent report by AP noted that emergency plans for companies operating natural gas pipelines like the one that exploded in San Bruno are not available to the general public, and the oversight agency does not carry copies in their offices. Because the government lacks copies, the public cannot use open records laws to obtain them.
Resident Richard Barba also expressed his concerns about the pipe line.
“Some of these companies say they will pay if something goes wrong, but how do you pay for four people who have been killed?” he asked.
Can the city respond to such a disaster?
Kantor said disasters of this kind could be too large for local resources to deal with.
“Hypothetically, if we had a disaster like this in Bayonne, our fire department couldn’t handle it,” Kantor said. “It would be too big a thing. You couldn’t get near the thing with the heat coming out like it was.”
He said in the California disaster, it took more than a day to put out the fire.
Public Safety Director Jason O’Donnell told Kantor that he agrees that the gas line should not run through residential Bayonne, a position Mayor Mark Smith has taken, but said emergency services can handle a disaster if such an event should occur.
“If an incident of that magnitude were to occur, I can assure you and the residents of the city of Bayonne, the Bayonne Fire Department is capable, not only to contain a gas pipe fire, but to put out any of the subsequent fires that might occur.”
Business Administrator Steve Gallo also went on record, saying the administration is opposed to the pipe line’s route as it has been proposed.
“We do think the more appropriate place would be the Kill Van Kull,” Gallo said. “The mayor has written a letter to the Federal Energy Commission in this regard. But this is not under our control. We’re not putting the gas line anywhere. We can only express our opinion.”
Just after the explosion last month, Mayor Smith wrote to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission expressing his opposition to the pipeline being located along West First Street and Lexington Avenue in Bayonne. The mayor’s office has contacted representatives of Spectra Energy and reinforced the administration’s opposition to their proposed route on West First Street and Lexington Avenue.
State, city, and county officials in California said they do not have copies of the San Bruno pipeline disaster plan, either.
The city has what it takes
In a later interview, O’Donnell – a former fire captain – said Bayonne is better equipped to deal with disasters of this kind than communities like San Bruno.
“My guess is that they have a county fire department and a number of volunteer fire companies to handle the disasters. But here we have more than enough staff and equipment to deal with it. We have mutual aid agreements with Jersey City and the North Hudson Regional fire departments.”
Bayonne historically is an industrial town and currently houses numerous chemical storage facilities – and IMTT, which is the largest chemical company in the city, has its own fire unit to handle these situations.
“Our firefighters are cross-trained with the fire department for these situations,” O’Donnell said.
He said the best way to stop this kind of disaster is prevention.
“If the explosion is going to happen, it’s going to happen. Nobody can do anything to stop it in that case. The best way to deal with that is to put the line somewhere it will do the least damage. In that, Mr. Kantor is right,” O’Donnell said. “But where he’s wrong is our ability to respond. If a disaster were to happen – God forbid – we are prepared to deal with it. What Mr. Kantor doesn’t understand is that we wouldn’t put out the fire if a gas line ruptured until we turned off the gas. If the flames are 100 feet high, we aren’t going near it until we cut the fuel source. It’s like a controlled burn. If we tried to put it out before we shut off the gas, we would have a bigger problem to deal with.”