Do old US Coast Guard cables present a risk of explosion?

Old US Coast Guard cables, similar to one involved in an explosion at a Rhode Island beach last summer, have been reported in 48 areas throughout the US. States and the Coast Guard are uncertain about what to do with them.

Steve Szydlowski/Providenc­e Journal/AP/File
Authorities investigate a blast that threw a beachgoer into a nearby jetty at Salty Brine beach in Narragansett, R.I., July 11. Scientists determined that the explosion was probably caused by the combustion of hydrogen that had built up around the cable. The US Coast Guard said there are 48 sites in 12 states where there may be an inactive cable similar to the one that caused the explosion in Rhode Island. Michigan, with 21 potential sites, has the most, according to information released to The Associated Press through an open records request.

New information reveals that the cable blamed for a Rhode Island beach explosion last summer may be just one of dozens of abandoned cables lurking beneath US beaches, waterways, and harbors.

In total, there are 48 sites in 12 states where old Coast Guard cables, like the one that caused the Rhode Island explosion, have been left, according to a Coast Guard list given to The Associated Press. The cables originally powered lights on lighthouses, buoys, and other Coast Guard beacons, but were abandoned when the lights were switched to solar power.

The list shows where the abandoned cables were left, but it is unknown without digging whether they are still there. The Rhode Island explosion has sparked a debate over whether these remaining cables could pose a safety hazard.

The explosion occurred in July at Salty Brine Beach in Narragansett, shocking beachgoers as it launched a woman out of her beach chair and into a rock jetty 10 feet away. Scientists were originally puzzled by the explosion, some citing a build up of methane from decaying seaweed while police said the cause may never be known. Scientists later concluded the explosion was from a build up of hydrogen, aided by the corroded Coast Guard cable.

Coast Guard officials have said they do not believe the other cables pose safety risks. Spokeswoman Lt. Sarah Janaro told The Associated Press the other sites have different environmental factors that place them at less risk and no other problems have been reported.

Not everyone is convinced.

"You would think they would be on top of it more if they had a problem," said Stuart Anderson, lead lineman for the electric department in Two Harbors, Minn. Two Harbors has one cable on the Coast Guard list that runs underneath a sidewalk, next to a rocky beach, and reaching to a breakwall. Mr. Anderson told the AP he wasn’t sure if the cable was dangerous or not.

Chris Reddy, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, has followed the investigation into the Rhode Island explosion closely and believes the cables are a problem that needs to be addressed.

However, he cautioned against pulling up all the cables as a “knee-jerk reaction.” "The Coast Guard will have to weigh the costs and the potential risks involved with removal with the chances of another explosion injuring beachgoers. Another alternative could be to post signs warning beachgoers of the presence of such cables," he told the AP.

The state of Michigan has the most cable sites, with 21 in total. It is followed by Wisconsin with eight, Illinois with five, Indiana and Ohio with three each, and Minnesota with two.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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