Philadelphia ‘sniffing’ for methane leaks ahead of Pope Francis’ visit

  • Katie Colaneri
Michael Groves, PGW Senior Pipe Mechanic climbs out of a hole on Van Pelt Street after inspecting a new main gas line in North Philadelphia.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Michael Groves, PGW Senior Pipe Mechanic climbs out of a hole on Van Pelt Street after inspecting a new main gas line in North Philadelphia.

There is a lot of construction work going on in downtown Philadelphia as crews with the city’s natural gas utility rip up the streets to replace some of the city’s old, leaky pipes. Is it just a coincidence that Pope Francis arrives in just three weeks?

Philadelphia Gas Works spokesman Barry O’Sullivan says, yes it is. The utility has stepped up replacement of its old gas mains, but not because the pontiff is coming.

Philadelphia has some of the nation’s leakiest gas pipes, which pose a safety risk and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. PGW has about 1,500 miles of cast-iron and bare steel pipes to replace, which, at the going rate of 25 miles per year, would take about 88 years to complete.

However, O’Sullivan said that last year, the utility was able to replace 28 miles of pipe. Earlier this week, PGW applied to the state Public Utility Commission for permission to increase the rate to 35 miles per year by raising a surcharge on customers’ bills.

In the meantime, “you’ll see more of our crews out in the streets decommissioning the older pipes and installing and connecting the newer pipe.”

So we can’t thank Pope Francis for better infrastructure, per se, but it turns out, PGW is also taking some papal precautions.

Under the supervision of the U.S. Secret Service, the utility is sending small teams of workers into the streets with four special SUVs and hand-held devices that can detect or “sniff” methane leaks, the kind that can lead to dangerous explosions. If the devices detect methane above normal or “background” levels, workers will move underground to explore the potential problem.

PGW is patrolling the “Francis Festival” grounds along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as well as the area around Independence Hall where the largest crowds will gather. The U.S. Secret Service declined to comment on the routes or its involvement in the process.

O’Sullivan said most of the pipes that run below the Parkway where two of the major papal events will take place have already been replaced within the last couple of years.

“Now it’s a question of just going back to make sure that after all the cold winters that we have or after all the other events have taken place on the Parkway … that nothing untoward has happened to our infrastructure,” he said.

If it has, O’Sullivan said, crews will work to fix the leaks right away. He would not say whether PGW has detected any leaks in the areas of the papal events.

Up Next

False positive results of radioactivity suspected in Greene County stream