Natural Gas Disaster in MA

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    Not sure if this has made the national news yet (or if Florence has sucked up all the media air time), but there were at least 39 house fires attributed to natural gas problems, and a few homes simply exploded.

    From the descriptions last night on the news it sounds like a gas overpressure situation. Witnesses were describing hissing from their appliances. This morning the news was talking about how there were contractors in the area working on gas lines…so wondering if they goofed and hooked up a high pressure line to the residential delivery line by mistake. Will probably take days to weeks to get a final report on this.

    Of course this got me thinking…

    Sure, I have a gas shutoff wrench (actually I have 3 so every exit has one near it, but I didn’t feel safe putting one on a string next to the meter since the meter is outside.) But unless I was home at the time of the event I wouldn’t be able to shutoff the gas before there was a chance of explosion when something came on and made a spark.

    Actually before the morning news reports I was wondering if a gas overpressure event could be caused within the control systems of the gas utilities? I mean, could a series of computer commands to various SCADA or similar devices change the pressure in the delivery system? In other words, could hackers mess up a city like this?

    Whatever the cause, the fallout is serious…multiple homes destroyed or seriously damaged, most of 3 cities were evacuated, power was actually turned off in one city overnight. Now utility crews have to go house by house checking for gas levels and damage to equipment before things can be turned back on….this will be a multi-day event for anyone in the affected area.


    You’ve made excellent points. Yes, whenever computers run the controls, utilities CAN be hacked. Not only that, but natural disasters can also cause catastrophic damage via the utilities (case in point, the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906.) Worse than the destruction of property, though, is the potential loss of life.

    As in the Massachusetts case, the issue was widespread, with 3 cities and their populations affected. Even if someone is on all electric, the gas lines running through the area can put them in danger, as well.

    Of course, if you live in an area like mine, that has NO gas, water, or sewer lines, the risk is reduced, but there are other potential issues instead (well pumps going out; need for propane deliveries, if you are on propane; septic tan issues; electricity issues; etc.) Even if you are completely “off the grid”, there can still be problems…they just won’t be as widespread as in the cities were people are dependent on public utilities.


    Preliminary report is in:

    It’s not exactly clear from reading the report if the regulators are under computer control or if it’s a local feedback loop that requires physical access to change settings. I suspect they are under computer control from the local area, but that detail isn’t perfectly clear.

    Of course, the report gives a roadmap to any terrorists out there on how to destroy the local gas grid in older areas: remove or destroy the sensors that detect gas pressure in the low pressure parts of the distribution system. The system will then automatically overpressurize the system causing chaos. Fortunately that’s easier said than done in most locations, but still….

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