America’s pipeline arteries are at risk. What can engineers do?

Water pumping transfer station with blue pipes

Neil Grigg, Ph.D., is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at CSU.

The frigid winter of 2020-21 caused thousands of pipe breaks across Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, resulting in extended water outages, widespread property damage, and financial hardship.

Four years earlier, the struggling city of Flint, Michigan tried to save money by switching its water supply source. Unfortunately, the new source corroded pipeline deposits of lead and other constituents, which entered the drinking water system and caused a public health emergency.

In 2010, a buried natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California, causing deaths and extensive damage to homes. Surprisingly, the pipeline company and local officials were unaware of the risk caused by the pipeline’s poor condition. This event led to inquiries and years of litigation, indictments, and settlements, along with punitive actions against the pipeline owner, Pacific Gas & Electric Company.

Over the past several decades, problems with energy pipelines have also caused significant pollution, including the recent 588,000 gallon Keystone pipeline spill in Washington County, Kansas.

All this begs the question: What needs to change?

Photo of the 2010 San Bruno explosion aftermath by Thomas Hawk

Unseen Threats Beneath the Surface

With coordinated pipeline engineering management and oversight, we could avoid most gas pipeline explosions, public health emergencies caused by aging pipe infrastructure, and environmental pollution impacts from pipeline failures.  

The knowledge base of pipeline engineering spans across hydraulics, structural engineering, chemistry, geotechnics, energy, and the related management sciences that focus on decision making. We have the tools to do things better.  

While most pipelines are buried, aging, and of uncertain condition, the good news is that technologies to assess their condition are advancing rapidly and showing great promise. For the most part, these technologies are IT-based, but are coupled with methods like acoustic, electromagnetic, and direct visual observation inside of the closed pipelines. By coupling these methods with analytics based on models, mapping, statistical analysis, and graphical imagery, the possibilities to improve management are very promising.  

A map of US pipelines
The U.S. has 8 million miles of pipelines for water, wastewater, stormwater, natural gas, oil, gasoline, and industrial fluids.

But the need for engineering experts to apply their knowledge toward pipeline management projects is only growing due to a massive, aging pipeline inventory in the U.S., which includes the water sector (water supply, wastewater, and stormwater), the energy sector (natural gas, oil, and gasoline), and diverse industrial process pipelines for fluids like gases, slurries, and chemicals. 

Most of this inventory is buried and out-of-sight, but its total length reaches about eight million miles, with an asset value ranging upwards of about $10 trillion. The annual depreciation of these assets is near $100 billion, based on an optimistic view of a 100-year lifetime. These pipelines are in public and private ownership by organizations with the capacity to manage them, but the mileage of smaller pipelines owned mainly by private citizens is even greater. 

Our National Infrastructure Report Card

Pipelines require professional engineering oversight and ongoing maintenance to ensure reliable service and safety. Water pipelines are mainly the responsibility of the government agencies that manage drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, and hydroelectric programs. These pipelines (along with the water bodies that supply them) are regulated for water quality by the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA).

Meanwhile, energy and hazardous material pipelines are mainly the responsibility of their owners in the private sector, and most are regulated for safety by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), part of the Department of Transportation.

three construction workers stand together in front of a sunset
As pipeline managers and owners face the challenges of long-term infrastructure management, they will require technical and financial capacity.

The condition and status of water pipelines is reported by USEPA and the Infrastructure Report Card, issued biannually by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).  

As of this writing, America’s current infrastructure score is a C-minus. 

Given the complexity of all infrastructure systems included in the Report Card, drinking water, stormwater, and wastewater are three critical sectors among a total of 17 that also include roads, highways, railways, levees, and bridges – all of which require updates and maintenance. 

The total projected investment required to keep U.S. infrastructure running can be overwhelming, especially when combined with other national funding issues. But that investment is critically important. 

Providing Safer Drinking Water for Future Generations

When we consider the harmful effects lead can have on childhood development, few efforts are more important than ensuring the safety of our nation’s drinking water.

Fortunately, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law addresses the need to replace the lead service lines that affect public health. These small pipes connect water mains to customer services in homes and other buildings. The government estimates that upwards of ten million lead service lines remain in use in the U.S. today, and the cost to replace them will be in the range of $50 billion. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law makes a start by investing some $15 billion to be provided by grants and other channels by states. Meanwhile, other management methods like monitoring and corrosion control can be used to mitigate harmful effects.

As pipeline managers and owners face the challenges of long-term infrastructure management, they will require technical and financial capacity. This is especially challenging to the tens of thousands of small water organizations that deliver drinking water across the U.S., as well as similar organizations that serve billions of people globally.

The U.S. requires a robust workforce with the advanced knowledge and skills to address the challenges that come with managing vast pipeline networks. The engineers performing these tasks often find themselves with complex management responsibilities, which may include budgeting and fiscal planning.

If adequate technical, management, and financial capacities had been operational in Flint and San Bruno, those pipeline failures could have been averted. Even when inevitable failures occur, the damaging consequences to life, health, the environment, and property can be greatly reduced with better oversight.

Gain the Knowledge to Help Build a Better US Infrastructure 

Managing America’s pipeline infrastructure requires both knowledgeable professionals and public commitment to provide the training and support needed for the workforce to deliver them.

If you’re interested in expanding your knowledge to help tackle these civil engineering challenges, consider checking out CSU’s online Civil Engineering Master’s and the new online Graduate Certificate in Hydraulic Design.

For additional learning opportunities, you can also visit the American Society of Civil Engineers, which offers seminars, courses, and events.

Finally, if you value ongoing investment in a safe and secure U.S. infrastructure, consider speaking with your local government, county officials, and state government officials to find out how they are allocating funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.