CHICAGO – On Feb. 26, a 40-foot wall of fire emerged from the ground where a 6-inch gas line broke here on the city’s South Side. Fortunately, only minor injuries occurred, though it took over four hours to extinguish the blaze.

Though this story did make the headlines of local and citywide media, a source from People’s Gas admits that hundreds of similar incidents that occur throughout the city every year do not. Most are largely unpublicized, but because this incident was accompanied by such a large and sustained fire, it was especially noticeable by the public media.

Though these breaks are common, People’s Gas does not regularly check any of the city’s mains for weaknesses or damage. People’s Gas maintains that breaks are solely caused by city workers who disregard notices not to use their digging equipment near the mains. People’s Gas says that city workers cause all damages to main lines.

However, despite the knowledge that city workers use digging machines near gas mains, People’s Gas makes no attempt to check or supervise digging around mains to see if they have in fact been damaged or weakened by such work. Instead, People’s Gas believes it is better to wait and see if a large break occurs, rather than prevent the damage that will eventually and certainly does occur.

In fact, People’s Gas does not regularly check or inspect pipe mains for damage or weaknesses no matter how old the pipe is. People’s Gas did say that they read the pressure of mains as a way of checking for leaks, but that no physical check of the pipe structure is made until a break is reported by an outside agency.

In the event of an actual break, simply fixing the pipe must be preceded by not only turning off all gas to the pipe but actually turning off all individual consumers’ connections and pilot lights to that main. In the case of the recent fire, this resulted in the gas being shut off for 4,554 residents. This meant that those customers were without heat and some without hot water. People’s Gas was able to turn the heat back on for most of these customers within two days, and all by the third day. Thankfully, this accident occurred during a particularly warm spurt of a very mild winter.

All of the city’s gas pipes are made of cast iron. Though strong in itself, the material is possibly susceptible to damaged by water from sewers or drainage pipes, making breaks more likely. Still, even though these cast iron pipes are so near to sewage pipes that hundreds of breaks occur every year, People’s Gas does not check to see if water damage is adding to the high frequency of these breaks.

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