Mar 12, 2024

As New York’s Gas Infrastructure Ages, Some Residents Are Left With Leaking Pipes or No Gas at All

In June 2022, an inspection crew from Con Edison showed up at the front door of Marcos Antonio Ramos’s co-op apartment in Washington Heights. There was something wrong with the boiler system, they said. The crew promptly shut off all gas connections and left the building, leaving residents without hot water or working gas stoves.

A few days later, a certified plumber inspected the 145 gas pipes that run through the 15-unit building. Ninety percent of the pipes failed the pressure test, making it unsafe for residents to turn the gas back on. A year later, the building remains without cooking gas, and Ramos has not been able to use his stove since.

Ramos, a 44-year-old fitness trainer, said that for the first few months, he and his family had to take cold showers because the boiler was out. “It was brutal,” he recalled.

New York City’s decades-old gas pipelines are showing signs of age. One indicator: Over the past decade, complaints to the city’s 311 line, where residents can alert officials to nuisances and hazards in the city, show that the number of New Yorkers reporting gas odors hit an all-time high last year, with 2,175 complaints recorded. Some of these reports result in gas service disconnection, leaving residents without gas service for months and sometimes years, according to the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. The city, which is aggressively pushing for a clean energy transition, is caught between its effort to move away from fossil fuels and having to deal with its messy and deteriorating gas infrastructure. Those who cannot afford the upgrade are bearing the brunt.

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At Ramos’ co-op, where owners share the cost for upkeep of the building, the hot water came back after gas to the boiler was restored. However, it was impossible for the residents to reconnect their stoves without replacing most of the building’s gas infrastructure.

The project would have cost them anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000. The residents, who are mostly from low-income households, could not afford to pay the bill and were left to find alternatives on their own.

“I really didn’t know it was going to go this far,” Ramos said. “I thought it was going to be maybe a couple of weeks.”

Ramos purchased a portable electric stove and an air fryer to enable cooking at home. But only having a single burner makes cooking more time consuming and increases his electricity bill.

Manhattan Fares the Worst

According to the city’s 311 database, the number of complaints reporting indoor chemical or gas smells increased sharply in the past two years. Among the five boroughs, Manhattan topped the list and recorded the highest number of complaints per person. Manhattan’s buildings tend to be older than the rest of the city, which contributes additional stress to the borough’s infrastructure. Washington Heights and Inwood, where more than 70 percent of residents are Hispanic, were among the neighborhoods that had the highest number of complaints.

Gas leaks can be caused by various factors, such as faulty appliances, damaged pipes, tampering with gas lines and human error. In New York City, aging gas pipelines pose a particular risk for leaks. Many buildings in the city were constructed over a hundred years ago, and their gas lines and pipes are more susceptible to damage and deterioration. This vulnerability to gas leaks can lead to fatal explosions or hazardous air pollution.

The city has experienced several high-profile gas-related accidents in the past. In 2014, a widespread gas leak in East Harlem resulted in a massive explosion that killed eight people and injured more than 80. The next year, an illegal tap into a gas pipe in the East Village caused an explosion that killed two and injured more than a dozen people.

To address these risks, the city in 2016 enacted Local Law 152, which mandates the periodic inspection of gas piping systems in all buildings in New York City. The law is a direct response to the series of gas-related accidents and aims to prevent future incidents.

Pressure tests used to diagnose problems in gas pipes are an essential tool for ensuring their safety. However, for people who are already experiencing gas problems, they do not fix the underlying trouble. For low-income co-op members like those in Ramos’s building, the steep cost of replacing the pipes makes it impossible to address the issue.

Lucia Santacruz, a project associate at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), works with New York City residents who are facing similar problems, particularly members of the Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC), which provides loans to nonprofits to develop low-income housing projects. Many residents report losing gas connections due to failed pressure tests. UHAB offers technical assistance and workshops to help residents navigate the situation and explore alternatives such as transitioning to gas-free homes.

“We’re trying to make sure that HDFCs are not left behind in the city’s move towards electrification and decarbonization,” Santacruz said.

Decarbonization Funding Still Elusive for Some

While gas leaks pose an acute danger to residents, some argue that using natural gas at home is harmful even without a leak. Earlier this year, Richard Trumka Jr., a commissioner of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, called for a closer examination of the health risks posed by gas stoves and suggested that a ban was on the table.

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The statement was met with fierce opposition, and the banning of gas stoves quickly became a political culture-war talking point. Environmental advocates, meanwhile, supported the move, emphasizing that reducing the use of fossil fuels in buildings is critical for the transition to clean energy.

Earlier this year, New York became the first state in the country to officially ban gas stoves and all gas connections to new buildings. The measure was an effort from the state government to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent before 2030.

New York City, however, was years ahead of the curve. It passed a similar ban in 2021, which essentially requires all new buildings to be powered by electricity. The bill will take effect gradually from 2024 to 2027.

The bill has been celebrated by climate activists and experts, as it is expected to help reduce New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions, 70 percent of which comes from buildings.

“Furnaces, boilers, hot water heaters, and cooking equipment emit more carbon emission than anything else,” said John Mandyck, a CEO at Urban Green Council, a nonprofit group working to decarbonize buildings. “This is our number one climate issue in New York City.”

Santacruz from UHAB said that there is no immediate assistance that residents can receive to fix their gas piping. “There aren’t incentives to repipe a gas system.”

While electrification with induction stoves is an option, it can also be a costly one. Even organizations such as UHAB have struggled to find adequate funding programs to support residents in electrifying their homes. “There are a few fundings for induction stoves, but very little at the moment,” Santacruz said.

Even with the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act, which gives out tax incentives to install electric appliances such as induction stoves and heat pumps, “it has been taking a while for the state and local governments to create the structure to get the money to people,” she said.

Con Edison, the company responsible for maintaining gas pipes across the city, did not give an estimate on the amount spent on upkeep. “Our investments are intended to keep the gas system safe and reliable as we transition to renewables,” said Allan Drury, a public affairs manager at Con Edison. “We have an aggressive pipe replacement program and plan on replacing at least 240 miles of unprotected steel and cast-iron piping in the next three years.”

Santacruz said the solution is not to keep hanging onto the aging gas systems but to support more affordable housing co-ops and low-income communities in transitioning to clean energy.

Mandyck at Urban Green Council echoed the sentiment. “We need to evaluate not just the cost of electrification, but also the significant cost of not decarbonizing,” he said.

Ramos, as with other members from his building, is currently working with UHAB in order to install new electric appliances. The residents already received $25,000 through the NYC Accelerator program, an incentive program for building decarbonization. However, it will not be enough to cover the whole project cost. The residents are also in the process of applying for a Weatherization Assistance Program, which could help make up for the rest.

Ramos said he feels “pretty good” about going electric. “I think this is something that we’re going toward anyway in the future, so we might as well get there now,” he said.

June Kim is a graduate student of Data Journalism at Columbia University, specializing in data-driven reporting on climate and the environment. With prior experience as a broadcast producer for media organizations in the United States and South Korea, she has covered a range of topics including immigration, music and Covid-19. June is passionate about using data creatively to tell compelling stories about the world, particularly focusing on climate technologies, infrastructure and the clean energy transition.

Manhattan Fares the WorstDecarbonization Funding Still Elusive for Some