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Earthquake Hazard – Pipelines

May 5, 2011, by Ken Jorgustin

When faults rupture and generate earthquakes, that rupture can extend to the surface, rupturing aqueducts and pipelines. It is estimated that there are 32,000 miles each of water and sewer distribution pipes or pipelines in the San Francisco Bay Area, serving more than 7 million people.

When contemplating what could happen as a result of a significant earthquake, anywhere in the world, serious consideration should be given towards the potential damage to buried infrastructure such as water supply pipelines, sewage pipes, natural gas pipelines, and communications and electrical cables.

An earthquake of sufficient magnitude that can severely damage homes and buildings, could also just as easily damage critical infrastructure – something that may be overlooked while thinking about your planning and preparations.

According to ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments), “Examining the locations of dams, water and wastewater treatment facilities, and pipeline networks that make up the water supply and wastewater collection system, shows earthquakes to be the greatest hazard. Because these systems have to be located in urban areas to serve those communities, their general hazard exposure is similar to that of the areas they serve.”

This is not unique to the San Francisco Bay area. It is most certainly the case elsewhere within earthquake hazard zones.

In the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the SF Bay Area experienced 507 water pipeline breaks or major leaks (the earthquake epicenter was 60 miles away). ABAG has estimated that there could be 6,000 – 10,000 water pipeline breaks or major leaks in a future earthquake on the Hayward fault, which is located directly within the Bay area itself.

For those that live in or close to known earthquake hazard zones, careful thought should be designated for planning to live for a period of time without the most basic of necessities such as running water, sewage treatment, communications, and electricity, many of which criss-cross earthquake fault zones in an array of distribution pipelines.

A major concern is also one of Fire. Not only will fires erupt from buildings whose infrastructure damage sparks flames, but if any natural gas distribution pipelines burst, as happened during a devastating instance during 2010 in San Bruno, California, entire neighborhoods or larger zones could be incinerated in a short period of time. Pacific Gas and Electric has kept secret their location of underground gas pipelines, so we (the public) really don’t know where they all are.

The idea here is to think beyond preparedness plans of just food and water. Imagine other likely scenarios including dam bursts, flooding, fires, and backed up sewage systems. Many geologists predict that the most dangerous earthquake fault in the world today is the Hayward fault located on the East Bay side of San Francisco, as there are millions of people that live immediately upon it and around it. It is projected to release a magnitude 7+ at any time, and is well overdue. Time to take action and prepare now, before it is too late.


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