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Thousands of Gas Leaks Discovered Under Streets of Washington DC 292

Posted by samzenpus
from the do-you-smell-something? dept.
First time accepted submitter gallifreyan99 writes "Researchers from Duke revealed today that they had discovered nearly 5,900 gas leaks under the streets of Washington DC, including 12 that posed a serious risk of explosion. And it's not just Washington: a gas industry whistleblower who is part of the team showed this was happening in cities all over America."
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Thousands of Gas Leaks Discovered Under Streets of Washington DC

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 17, 2014 @09:13AM (#45984825)

    take care of the massive rat problem at 1st & Capitol NE?

  • by captbob2002 (411323) on Friday January 17, 2014 @09:17AM (#45984847)

    Good to know that private enterprise is taking such good care of their infrastructure - so much better than anything the government might operate *snort*.

    I am sure they will ask for a rate increase to perform the maintenance that they should have been doing all along - can't take that kind of money from the shareholders (owners.)

    Keep the profits private and the losses public - that's the ticket.

    • by blue trane (110704) on Friday January 17, 2014 @09:25AM (#45984909) Homepage Journal

      Utilities should be public, and not operated for profit. Since they're in the public good, money can be created (by the Fed, say, which then gives it to the government at no interest and keeps the loan rolling over forever, or forgives it) to make infrastructure safe. The free market has failed to provide secure infrastructure, because the free market does not care about the General Welfare; but the government is mandated to by the Constitution.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 17, 2014 @09:32AM (#45984961)

        Except that the government is, in many ways, controlled by corporations. And if the government really cared about the constitution, we wouldn't have the TSA, the NSA spying, stop-and-frisk, free speech zones, or suspicion-less border searches.

        Both the government and corporations are just trash.

      • by plover (150551) on Friday January 17, 2014 @09:33AM (#45984975) Homepage Journal

        Utilities should be public, and not operated for profit.

        But ... free markets! Capitalism! Invisible hands! Civil liberties! Competition!

        You socialists think that just because corporate greed has always won every decision in every board room ever, that means that every future corporation will be equally corrupt. We'll be the first to tell you that "past performance is no guarantee of future success." It could certainly happen that a private, for-profit utility would put the public good ahead of their profits.

        Well, it could happen.

        • by JWW (79176)

          Maybe they wouldn't directly put the public good ahead of profits, but they might put limiting their liability ahead of their profits.

          Having a large accident would be a large liability for an energy company, and they would naturally take steps to avoid it.

          While companies exist to make money the idea that only the government really cares about the people is a little too simplistic. Especially when you start talking into account how government entities like the NSA "care" about the people.

          • by overshoot (39700) on Friday January 17, 2014 @10:23AM (#45985481)

            Having a large accident would be a large liability for an energy company, and they would naturally take steps to avoid it.

            That's not how regulated utilities work [1]. Their rates are set to guarantee a defined return on investment. To avoid having them "invest" in gold-plated executive toilets at Corporate Headquarters, the utility commission gets to decide what the company can invest in. If they approve an upgrade to the pipes, the Corporation gets to charge the customers for the cost plus ROI. If the Commission denies the request (to keep rates down) the liability is a business expense and the Corporation gets to charge the customers and add ROI to that, too.

            Private or public, utility infrastructure is a political decision.

            [1] City gas is a so-called "natural monopoly." Think about what an unregulated one would be like.

            • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Friday January 17, 2014 @12:48PM (#45987477)
              I think you should have taken this argument further.

              The problem with utilities, public or (most) private, is that they're really NOT "free enterprise". They are either run by the government, or highly regulated by the government, often in a "crony capitalism" fashion... which is about as far from "free enterprise" as it gets.

              I think it's hilarious how Statists will see businesses regulated -- badly -- and then use that as an excuse for even more government intervention. "Look! It's not working! Let your benevolent government step in and fix it!"

              Yeah, right. When was the last time THAT worked?
          • by necro81 (917438) on Friday January 17, 2014 @11:23AM (#45986115) Journal

            Having a large accident would be a large liability for an energy company, and they would naturally take steps to avoid it

            If you had bothered to RTFA, you would have noted that dangerous leaks are usually addressed immediately; just as you say, it's a liability thing.

            But the thousands of smaller leaks (ones that don't affect buildings or subterranean infrastructure, for instance, just leaking gas into the ground), because they don't pose an immediate safety risk, are largely ignored and never fixed. From a climate change standpoint (hell, even from a horticultural standpoint - gas kills plants), these are costs that don't show up as liabilities to the company. In other words, another example of an externality that the magical hand of capitalism has failed to account for. If the gas company were charged a premium rate for lost gas (i.e., the difference between what they take delivery of and the sum of all they deliver to customers) to account for those methane emissions, or were charged $5,000 to replace a tree killed by a gas leak, then they might take it more seriously. So why don't we?

            • Generally gas distribution companies are allowed a baseline "lost and accounted for" amount of gas that is built into their rates. Anything above that either requires serious documentation/explanation or is taken out of the company profit. There is incentive to get to that baseline number but extremely diminishing returns after that. As you say, that could change if other costs were factored into the equation.

        • Come to Pennsylvania and tell me how great government run programs are when you look at our roadways. Government isn't an automagic solution. There is just as much greed and corpution in the government as there is anywhere else.
        • I think the problem American politics has with regulating is a false dichotomy. Voters here are confused and scared by the economy. Believing that there is good side and an evil side, with free market freedom jesus on one side and the DMV devil on the other side is a lot more comforting than various shades of grey wrapped up in numbers and statistics. So we get overzealous with letting companies do what they want, with faith that it will somehow work out for the best.

          It's stupid, but lets not move fro
          • Except for that utilities are very much regulated throughout the entire country, sir. There is no free market to speak of. Pricing adjustments, policies and procedure and budgets are denied and approved by the government. What "private" utilities would be better termed as would be subcontractors.

            The gaslines in DC are already a regulated utility. You're trying to act centralist but your language shows that you're clearly in the government-owned camp.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Petron (1771156)

          Like Chernobyl? Run by the government for the public good... then it exploded in 1986. Then it was brought back online and ran until the end 2000 because the public good needed cheap power.

          The problem is the lack of free markets. In most cities you don't have the option of 5 different gas companies. You get one. That is because the city leaders in their infinite wisdom on what is good for the people decided that ABC Company will handle all the hardware and maintenance.

          I worked at an ISP as a Tech suppo

          • by Isca (550291)
            The issue with wireless is that you just can't get the bandwidth that cable or fiber can bring. It's different per industry. There's no reason why water and sewage need to be for profit companies. I think natural gas is close behind simply because it's hard to have multiple companies provide the product at a central distribution point in whatever city/town. However communications services CAN be split into their components to be set up as a utility and a service. I think more cities should invest in munic
        • by operagost (62405)
          Again, in what universe would a government-enforced monopoly be called "capitalism"?

          • Again, in what universe would a government-enforced monopoly be called "capitalism"?

            C'mon, man, that's Page 1 of the fascism [econlib.org] playbook.

        • by superwiz (655733)
          Last I heard water bottling companies can provide clean water despite having no free infrastructure. While water utilities often fail at this task despite having free pipes (which they inherit from generations ago). Water companies don't have compete for their customers. Water bottling companies do. Water comapnies are given natural monopolies by the government. Yeah.. capitalism, faux news ... blah blah blah. Morons who think badly of capitalism forget that anti-communism was a fight over the right t
      • Creating money = tax on existing money = unpopular with people who have lots of money.

      • by N1AK (864906)

        Utilities should be public, and not operated for profit. Since they're in the public good

        It's a pretty simplistic position. Why should gas infrastructure be public when surely it isn't as critical, or at least no more so, than food, water, medicine, logistics, drilling for oil?

        The argument that giving something to the government magically makes it safe is nonsense. Give something to a government department with the wrong targets and insufficient funding and you'll end up with a mess regardless of their m

        • by ibwolf (126465)

          Why should gas infrastructure be public when surely it isn't as critical, or at least no more so, than food, water, medicine, logistics, drilling for oil?

          If a grocery store isn't doing a good job it will likely go out of business. Setting up a new grocery store is fairly simple and doesn't require much capital.

          Now compare that to setting up a competing gas infrastructure.

          It's not about "being in the public good" per se. But being of an inherently monopolistic nature. Private gas infrastructure makes about as much sense as private road infrastructure.

        • by Solandri (704621)

          Utilities should be public, and not operated for profit. Since they're in the public good

          It's a pretty simplistic position. Why should gas infrastructure be public when surely it isn't as critical, or at least no more so, than food, water, medicine, logistics, drilling for oil?

          I'm a pretty hardcore free-market capitalist, but I agree utilities should be public. They key is the distribution system.

          Food, medicine, logistics, and oil have multiple channels via which they can be delivered from source

      • Problem is there will be a profit for somebody. Contractors regularly gouge the government primary as payback for jumping over the huge hurdles that replace responsible management. Even if it's all in house suppliers do about the same. I do not really blame them government jobs can take forever to actually get paid, sue you on general principle, and gouge you for political donations and rubber chicken dinners.

        Now I would love to see the local governments take over fiber to the home etc with open access pol

    • by dcw3 (649211) on Friday January 17, 2014 @09:43AM (#45985067) Journal

      This is not an example of free enterprise by any stretch of the imagination. Public utilities are tightly controlled, with virtually no competition.

      So, while we can debate the virtues, or lack thereof, of public vs. private efforts, utilities fall into the grey area in between.

    • by jbmartin6 (1232050) on Friday January 17, 2014 @09:44AM (#45985077)
      Monopolies are bad. Government makes a monopoly. Results are bad. Are you surprised? I am surprised at your apparent attitude, given the track record of government-managed systems. You think that would be better?
      • by amck (34780) on Friday January 17, 2014 @10:33AM (#45985603) Homepage

        Monopolies are bad. Government makes a monopoly. Results are bad. Are you surprised? I am surprised at your apparent attitude, given the track record of government-managed systems. You think that would be better?

        Not necessarily. For example the method used in Former Yugoslavia: the bread business was nationalised to ensure cheap bread for the populace. Two government bread companies were set up (IIRC). They were made to compete with each other, but with within strict rules, so that profit-taking for the benefit of staff salaries was out, but they could find efficiencies and compete. Also, it was legal for private companies to set up and sell other types of bread, but obviously couldn't control the market.

        Similarly, Ireland had a nationalized shipping company to ensure shipping happened in Ireland ; during WWII no-one else would ship to Ireland because of the danger, and after the war they needed stable prices. Other companies could compete, but this meant there was a ceiling on prices and there was always someone capable of shipping.

        Secondly having spent half my life in the public and half in the private sector, the private-sector is just as bad, it just doesn't have public investigations into waste.

        • Thanks for a couple of interesting examples, I will try to read up on them. I've spent some time in the public sector, and the waste there was a thousand times worse than anything I have seen in the private sector. Experiences differ, I am sure.
      • by dkleinsc (563838)

        I am surprised at your apparent attitude, given the track record of government-managed systems.

        The track record of government-managed systems is actually pretty good overall. To name a few:
        - US Postal Service, which is still delivering stuff everywhere in the country at a ridiculously low cost using a system that is the envy of other country's postal systems. Seriously. It's good enough that to cover a lot of the country FedEx and UPS simply contract the delivery to the USPS. It's good even with a bunch of people in Congress trying to kill it by forcing them to fund the retirements of future postal w

        • You've written a cherry picked list of government programs that you consider successful, the original comment was about monopolies. Mail delivery, the Internet, health care, Social Security, inspection regimes aren't monopolies so I won't comment on them.

          "According to a study conducted in late April [2013] by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can't read. That's 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a
        • Private enterprise employees are actively motivated to screw you over.

          A ridiculous exaggeration. I have been in the private sector for decades and have never been actively motivated to screw anyone over, nor have I worked for any company that was. The reason that you think private sector sucks is that you cherry pick a few rare instances when a crime is committed. Most of the time people are just doing their jobs and keeping things humming along.

      • by necro81 (917438)

        Monopolies are bad. Government makes a monopoly. Results are bad. Are you surprised?

        But infrastructure is a situation where true competition is difficult if not impossible. Are you proposing that several companies compete to lay identical sets of natural gas pipes down every street to serve every building? What a waste of capital! The business-case math on that just doesn't work out. (N companies, each investing C capital, to compete for X customers. Compared to the caes where there's just one company

        • An excellent point, I believe this is sometimes referred to as a 'natural monopoly' problem. I am not going to claim to have a solution. If one person or agency were capable of knowing everything that would work the Soviet Union would be ruling the world today. My comment was merely in response to the parent's attitude that somehow private enterprise was to blame as opposed to the simple global fact that large entrenched organizations of any sort tend to be pretty cruddy.
    • by Gothmolly (148874) on Friday January 17, 2014 @10:16AM (#45985401)

      Except that they aren't private, they're granted a monopoly and enjoy quasi-governmental rights. This is what happens when you have the worst of both worlds.

    • by Ksevio (865461)

      I am sure they will ask for a rate increase to perform the maintenance that they should have been doing all along

      They do one better - they charge the customers now for the line-loss as a percentage of what they use. They actually have incentive to have leaky pipes because it means they're selling more gas to the same number of customers.

    • by superwiz (655733)
      Ha? Gas companies are not private. They are monopolies deemed "essential" and entirely controlled by the government.
    • by tibit (1762298)

      The biggest thing I don't get: why the fuck don't they use the foreverlasting polyethylene piping like you see in Europe? The standard method of joining those PE pipes is thermal welding, essentially making the entire pipe system one contiguous piece of material. Why does anyone approve any steel or iron piping for intra-city gas distribution at all? It's nuts. You can have copper or iron piping inside of the buildings, for fire safety, if those pipes can be routed in non-condesing environment. That's about

  • What a noobs (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    This is known tech, used extensively in many countries, yet they still can't manage to maintain a decent system quality.
    http://www.activistpost.com/2010/08/10-signs-us-is-becoming-third-world.html

  • by Mashiki (184564) <mashiki AT gmail DOT com> on Friday January 17, 2014 @09:21AM (#45984865) Homepage

    This happens all over the place, including serious enough leaks that can cause explosions. Occasionally you hear about a building/house/etc blowing up because gas has leaked in from a line out front, or was run under a building, or something else. The only solution is checking, that and running new pipe. In my area back about 15 years ago Union Gas replaced all of the old turn of the century cast iron pipe with plastic. There was no shortage of the old stuff cracking and having developed leaks over the last 100 years. And of course, they checked every house along the way to the meter and if need be they dug up your front yard and replaced the pipe.

    I'm actually not sure why the whistleblower thing is "needed" being that anyone who went to highschool(at least in Canada), knows that this is an issue. And yet, we have NG all over the place, or propane if you're too far off the line, or oil. And of course there's still plenty of people who don't have any of those, and are pure electric or wood.

    • Exploding manholes (Score:5, Interesting)

      by oneiros27 (46144) on Friday January 17, 2014 @09:36AM (#45984997) Homepage

      Back when I lived in DC (late 1990s) there were regular reports of exploding manholes ... with the best guess of the cause being a combination of gas leaks and electrical shorts. Of couse, in the report on the problem [goodspeedupdate.com] blamed PEPCO (electrical) not Washington Gas.

      About 10 years ago, they had a solution -- install manholes with vent holes in them, so the gas pressure can't build up as easily. Of course, you instead get extra water underground, which can lead to faster corrosion of pipes.

      Last year, when the methane levels were first reported [sciencemag.org], the estimate was 38 exploding manholes per year ... so I'm guessing the vented covers have been less than successful.

      • Blowing the cover off the manhole is easy, the explosion could have been triggered a long way off underground. Plus ethane is slightly denser than air, so it's unlikely to vent off much through the manhole cover. You'd probably need to push air through to disperse the gas.
        • by dkf (304284)

          Blowing the cover off the manhole is easy, the explosion could have been triggered a long way off underground. Plus ethane is slightly denser than air, so it's unlikely to vent off much through the manhole cover. You'd probably need to push air through to disperse the gas.

          It's very close to the density of air (heavier than pure nitrogen gas, lighter than pure oxygen gas) so it is very unlikely to either pool or disperse.

      • Now they need "power vents" to actively exchange the gas.

      • You can't call them manholes any more, it's sexist. They're called street level person apertures.
    • NG is hot - fracking is making it cheap and (even more) ubiquitous - the whistleblower thing is necessary to prod infrastructure improvements now before a major disaster gives this cheap new energy source a black eye, causing the demand for an already high supply commodity to fall.

    • by Ksevio (865461)
      The big issue here is of the 12 cases where a leak was large enough to cause an explosion, the majority of them were still present a year later. Lots of leaks are expected, but serious ones should be fixed.
    • The lot to our south is empty, and according to long-time residents of the neighborhood, has been since the 1960s. At the time, an old lady lived in a little house there, and it blew up due to a gas leak. The property is still owned by the lady's daughter. No idea why she's never sold it or built on it again.

      There was a similar explosion a neighborhood over a few years ago. The burnt out frame remnants of this house are still there, behind the chain link fence. The house next door (on one side) was kno

  • . . . .for wanting several thousand lit matches in JUST the right spots, all around DC ???

    Of course, one DOES have to worry about the massive wind from all the politicians, blowing them out, which may explain why DC is still on the map. . . .

  • Check for ninjas in the basement.

  • In other news ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 17, 2014 @09:23AM (#45984895)

    "The latest teenage prank is to throw lighted matches and cigarettes down manholes in Washington, DC."

    "Gas company announces it needs to raise rates to fix leaks."

    ...A few months go by of more efficient gas lines - meaning less wasted into the atmosphere.

    "Gas company CEO gets bonus for increased profits. Writes book on how to be a great CEO."

    He then appears on CNBC and is introduced as Blow Hard Jack and pontificates on how a business should be run. CNBC talking heads fawn all over him and blame Democrats for the poor business climate.

    DC residents stuck with higher rates while CEO and shareholders rake it in. But hey, they worked HARD for it - they had to READ a news headline in the paper about their operational stupidity. The thought of proactively looking for leaks never crossed their mind.

    • by Bigby (659157)

      That is what happens when you have autonomous public companies. Most of Jersey City works this way, including trash collection, parking authority, etc... Everything but the police and fire departments. And guess what? Jersey City is like 90% Democrat.

      This isn't a party issue. It is an issue with autonomous public companies. A company is either private or public. And guess what? Public companies are the ones that need most of the regulating. They are the ones raking profits that are not checked by o

  • Corporate America manages to destroy critical infrastructure wholesale all bu itself...

  • So this is why there is such a big campaign against smoking in US!
  • I live in a fairly small city that experienced two gas leaks in as many days (and I believe it was three within the span of a week) due to work being done to the lines by the gas company. The two gas leaks were significant enough to evacuate nearby residents and shut down power to the neighborhood.

    If these businesses aren't willing to hire and train competent work crews, maybe it's best that things are left alone.

  • That's hot air, the place is full of it
  • no wonder our elected officials all act like brainless tools...

    they are high on fumes.

  • Shhhh (Score:4, Insightful)

    by LookIntoTheFuture (3480731) on Friday January 17, 2014 @09:40AM (#45985037)
    Do you hear that? That's the sound of the US crumbling under unregulated greed and power.
    • by khallow (566160)

      o you hear that? That's the sound of the US crumbling under unregulated greed and power.

      Sorry, but in this case, that greed and power sounds highly regulated to me. Even so-called "natural monopolies" need help keeping out the competition.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Prosecute the whistleblowers for leaking the leaks!

    Think of the^W^W^W Imagine what a terrorist could do with this information!

    • You forgot that we need to grant Homeland Security the ability to declare matches and all forms of fire to be weapons of terror. Sure, a few innocent people might be arrested as they try to keep warm in the freezing cold, but that's a small price to pay for freedom from the terrorists. Remember: Anyone who opposes the bad on the terrorist tool known as fire is probably a terrorist and hates America!

  • Well, it's a good thing it's not a widespread problem [eia.gov]
  • This is government lies. They need to lay the groundwork for using 'gas leak' to explain all these vampire/zombie/werewolf/alien incidents.
  • by 3seas (184403) on Friday January 17, 2014 @09:47AM (#45985109) Journal

    Call the NSA, CIA, FBI and all those who are against leaks.

  • by Cro Magnon (467622) on Friday January 17, 2014 @09:54AM (#45985175) Homepage Journal

    I always knew WDC was full of gas.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 17, 2014 @10:03AM (#45985263)

    There isn't anything ere to be worried about folks.

    There are thousands and thousands of miles of 60 plus year old cast iron and steel pipe. These pipes expand and contract over time and wiggle themselves loose. Typically these leaks are very small and are no danger to the public, which is why they are allowed to persist. Every natural gas utility in the United States is required to have a leak management program which is monitored by the state they reside in and the Department of Transportation. Most natural gas utilities have capital infrastructure projects in place to replace these old pipes with new plastic pipe, which is more flexible and creates a very strong joint. The creation of these programs is directly related to the regulatory agencies mandating a reduction in leaks each year.

    If you do ever smell natural gas (which actually doesn't smell, mercaptain is added for the fart smell) please call your utility and report it.

    I am an engineer at a natural gas utility and it is my job manage the installation of plastic pipe and deal with these leaks.

    • Typically these leaks are very small and are no danger to the public, which is why they are allowed to persist.

      It's not about the danger of explosion from these leaks; it's about the large volume of methane escaping from these small leaks around the country. Given that methane is a potent greenhouse gas (20x more than CO2), the volume of leaks so far detected would make natural gas a dirtier fuel than even coal! The implications to national energy policy should be of concern to the public.

      • it's about the large volume of methane escaping from these small leaks around the country. Given that methane is a potent greenhouse gas (20x more than CO2)

        Hmm, running some numbers for North America, and using the 6% lost due to leaks mentioned in TFA, I get ~20 megatons of methane leaked annually, compared to ~7500 megatons of CO2 emitted annually.

        With the 20x factor for methane as a greenhouse gas, those leaks would account for ~6% of greenhouse gas emissions.

        While we'd be better off going nuclear, I

        • How do you just write off 6% of total green house gas emissions? It's the equivalent of 450 megatons of CO2... more than every one but the top 11 national CO2 producers. Let's negate ALL of Italy's CO2 production by closing a few leaks? Yeah. Not mind-boggling but stop trivializing it. It's a big fucking number.
  • by overshoot (39700) on Friday January 17, 2014 @10:10AM (#45985333)

    The good news is that this may get the Government to notice the enormous deferred-maintenance problem in the USA.

    The bad news is that they'll only fix the stuff inside the Beltway and pay for it by shorting repairs somewhere else.

  • No no no (Score:5, Funny)

    by Greyfox (87712) on Friday January 17, 2014 @10:13AM (#45985375) Homepage Journal
    That's Ok! I don't see any need for job-killing regulations for the energy industry in Washington! If anything they need LESS regulation, or someone will outsource all those gas jobs to China! Congress doesn't want to kill jobs do they?
  • by JazzHarper (745403) on Friday January 17, 2014 @11:02AM (#45985899) Journal

    This is not news. Natural gas lines leak--they always have. It has nothing to do with whether the utility is public or private. It has nothing to do with US politics. Natural gas utilities all over the world operate their systems at low pressure to minimize the leakage and fix significant problems when they're detected. It sounds like Duke students discovered something that civil engineers have known for 100 years.

  • by wired_parrot (768394) on Friday January 17, 2014 @11:04AM (#45985915)
    It's not about the danger of gas explosions ; larger gas leaks that pose safety concerns are usually addressed if they are detected. It's about the thousands of small leaks, that the gas industry often ignores as being too small to pose any risk. In this the second link is very informative: not only are these small leaks killing trees and vegetation in the vicinity of where they occur, but collectively they are leaking a large amount of methane into the atmosphere that contributes to global warming. And given that methane is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas, it means if the estimates of the leaks were to be correct, natural gas would actually be worse for global warming than coal. This would have powerful implications for US energy policy, given that natural gas is being sold as a cleaner burning fossil fuel, when the leaks completely undermine it's "clean" premise.
  • Clearly they should have never agreed to build Congress its own subway [wikipedia.org].
  • I find it hilarious and sad that a libertarian can't understand that gas companies are doing everything they can to ignore and deflect problems that will cost them large sums of money to fix.

    If he wants the problems fix, maybe he should fix it himself.

  • It a city that size, that doesn't really seem like that many to me.

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