Rangel (D-NY) has confirmed that ConEd admits that the explosion in Harlem was caused by natural gas, not terrorism. In fact, the soil under the building that exploded had a natural gas concentration of 20 percent, according to the NY Daily News.
The NY Daily News is very careful in its Con Ed coverage. Con Ed provides electricity, natural gas, and steam power to the city. It's powerful. It's local.
Look to Time for more audacious coverage. Its headline was Harlem Building Collapse Highlights America’s Dangerously Old Gas Infrastructure:
American’s use of natural gas goes back to the early 1900s, and some of the pipes funneling gas beneath city streets today go back that long, too. More than 6,000 miles of pipe run through New York’s five boroughs, carrying the natural gas that in turn provides 65% of the heat used by city residents. And the average age of that pipe, according to a report from the Center for an Urban Future, is 56 years old, much of it made of old materials that are more prone to leaks.
If the average age of the pipes is 50, that means some are close to new, and some are about 100 years old. "The notion of a natural gas system without any leaks is laughable to experts," says Time's article.
This is a problem that is prevalent. It's likely ConEd knew about it for decades -- and did nothing. ConEd's prices (rates) are set by the state regulator. See, for example, Order Setting Electric Rates (Issued and Effective April 24, 2009). At its simplest, the rate that ConEd charges customers = RATE BASE x (1 + COST OF CAPITAL). There is no profit provision, but there is a provision for paying dividends to equity owners and also for paying interest to creditors. Con Ed's Cost of Capital is 7.79%, so its rates equal the RATE BASE x 1.0779. The utility can save money by simply not replacing parts of its network.
But ConEd's not the only local utility that's harming Harlem.
Like ConEd, Verizon's also ripping off Harlem by combining high prices and low maintenance.
According to the Daily News, "Verizon customers in East Harlem who have been without telephone service since early February say the mega-company is trying to force them to dump their outdated traditional copper-cable landlines for the new fiber-optic lines and fancy features." Translation: Verizon doesn't want to repair the copper. Instead, it wants Harlem customers to pay high prices for a service that will stop working during a power outage, and to pay for features they don't want, need, or use.
In poor areas across the US, the phone company is not repairing phone service when it breaks. In many areas that theoretically have phone service, the telephone is mostly useless because the lines have not been repaired for year. Bruce Kushnick, writing for HuffPo, wrote in January, "the year 2013 will be remembered as the year that, for the first time in telecommunications history, an incumbent utility phone company, Verizon, decided to not repair the customers' wires after a major storm."
Verizon's been skimping on repairs for years. See, for example, N.Y. Pub. Serv. Comm'n, Case 10-C-0202, Order Directing Verizon New York Inc. to File a Revised Service Quality Improvement Plan at 3 (June 22, 2010): "Beginning in the summer of 2008, Verizon's timeliness of repair performance fell short of the threshold levels defined in the Commission's service standards."
In some parts of the city (and across New York State), Verizon is eliminating phone lines and replacing them with something called VoiceLink, which appears to be a 1990s era analog cellular phone. The Communications Workers of America (CWA), the union, has done important work in exposing Verizon's treatment of minorities. Last year, the CWA told the state regulator:
Verizon dispatched employees to install VoiceLink as replacement service to all 81 units of a building at 308 E. 8th St. in lower Manhattan, but the elderly residents of the building insisted that VoiceLink not be installed after learning that it would not support their LifeAlert health monitoring equipment. To CWA’s knowledge, the building remains without phone service at the present time. There have also been a limited number of installations in the Hudson Valley area to customers who were not aware of the limitations of VoiceLink service. Verizon has also installed VoiceLink on a limited basis in the Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens.308 E. 8th St. is Casa Victoria Housing for the Elderly, which is Section 202 housing for poor elderly people. Verizon cut off their LifeAlert in order to save money.
Verizon needs the money. GigaOm noted that it recently closed a $130 billion purchase of the rest of Verizon Wireless from UK's Vodafone.
It issued a record-breaking $49 billion in debt. The poor and the elderly have to pay their part of that debt. U.S. cellular customers already pay prices so high that Vodafone's rights to half the profits of Verizon Wireless' 114 million customers were worth more than the remaining 350 million Vodafone customers worldwide. "Though Verizon Wireless proportionately only accounted for about 50 million of Vodafone’s nearly 400 million global customers, the joint venture actually took in more money than all of Vodafone’s global operations combined," noted GigaOm.
But that's not all. As Markos noted recently, the phone companies have taken hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies (including tax breaks) to deliver broadband to areas they don't intend to serve. Nevertheless, ALEC is making sure that nobody else will be allowed to serve those areas, either, a strategy that mostly harms poor people.
As of June 2013, the OECD ranked the United States 16th in the world in wireline broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, at 29.3. The number is slightly misleading because the market would be saturated if each household had an internet subscription, and there are between two and three people per household on average. According to the most recent U.S. Census data (from 2008-2012), there are 2.6 people per household in the United States. So roughly 29.3 * 2.6 = 76.18 percent of U.S. households have broadband. That means that almost 24 percent are without.
As for our national power grid, it could go out if 9 facilities fail this summer. The article is slightly misleading. The U.S. really has three grids: East, West, and Texas. It's much more likely that one or two of them will fail at any time instead of all three at once. But that's not much comfort to anyone living through a blackout who knows that most of the nation's infrastructure is close to breaking.
A Democratic Answer
The answer is spending. Parts of the infrastructure should be built by the government, or repairs paid for by the government in a manner similar to the excellent but much maligned ARRA (Recovery Act) of 2009. America needs a trillion dollars of Obama money, this time just for repairs. Just don't give the money to the utilities: they'll spend it on bonuses and dividends.