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Fatal Natural Gas Explosion Rocks Durham, NC

Energy
Nick Knittel / North Carolina Public Radio / WUNC.org

One person was killed and 17 were injured after a natural gas explosion in Durham, North Carolina Wednesday morning.

The explosion occurred at 10:07 a.m., about 30 minutes after firefighters responded to a 911 call reporting the smell of gas in the 100 block of North Duke Street, Fire Chief Robert J. Zoldos II told The Durham Herald-Sun. The firefighters had begun evacuating nearby buildings when the blast destroyed one building and damaged four others, sending up a plume of dark smoke.

"It looks like the front of the Pentagon on 9/11 — but on a very, very small scale," Zoldos, who was a first responder during the attacks, told CBS.


Witness Jim Rogalski, who was working in a nearby office, described the scene to CNN in a text message.

"Half the block is destroyed," Rogalski wrote. "Lots of injuries. Our office across the street was blown out. It was terrifying. Glass and debris everywhere. No one killed in our office but several injuries — deep cuts, head lacerations."

Zoldos told the Durham Herald-Sun that he contacted Dominion Energy, the company that supplies gas to Durham, after receiving the 911 call. Dominion tweeted that its subsidiary PSNC Energy "responded to a call about third-party damage to a natural gas line and the explosion occurred shortly thereafter." Additional PSNC crews shut off gas to the area following the blast.

"Our thoughts & prayers are with those impacted by this tragic event as well as their families," Dominion said.


Dominion has been the driving force behind the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would bring fracked natural gas through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. Dominion has said it will appeal to the Supreme Court after an appeals court tossed key permits for the project over environmental concerns.

For anti-pipeline group No ACP!, the explosion underscored the dangers of using gas as an energy source.

"They tell us gas is safe but it's clearly not," the group tweeted.

The cause of Wednesday's explosion is currently under investigation, the Durham Herald-Sun reported. Officials initially said it was caused when a contractor hit a two-inch pipe beneath the sidewalk, but later said they were still working to discover the cause.

"Until the investigation is complete, we don't know that's the source of the gas leak," Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson told the Durham Herald-Sun.

The building most damaged by the explosion was a former Studebaker dealership now home to several businesses including Kaffeinate coffee shop. It was the owner of that shop, 61-year-old Kong Lee, who perished in the blast, CNN reported.

Of those injured, one was a firefighter, one was an employee of Dominion who had responded to the initial leak report and eight were employees of Duke University, CNN reported. The firefighter was seriously hurt, but their life was not in danger, Zoldos said. Six of those injured were critically wounded.

The blast came as the city of Durham celebrated its 150th birthday.

"It's an irony, I know," Mayor Steve Schewel said as he praised emergency crews for their response, as CBS reported. "But what I will say about that is that what we hoped would be a very happy day it's not a happy day, but, again, it's a day when I am so proud of how our local government functions."

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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