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How much is a life worth
During my years as an engineer I once asked should we put a dollar value on a human life. Without going into detail, for the project I was working on this was a legitimate question. I knew that it was too touchy a subject and doing so would be rejected but I felt obligated to ask the question.

I was reminded of this recently by an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. The article was precipitated by a recent explosion in a Cupertino (near San Jose) condominium complex where one condo was blown up and destroyed. Apparently a type of plastic gas transmission pipe manufactured prior to 1973, and used in the complex, is subject to "premature cracking". This trait has led to "over" 50 deaths nationwide over the past 40 years with 33 off them during a single event in Puerto Rico due to "improperly installed" pipe.

It was also reported that the 6,000 feet of plastic gas transmission pipe in the condominium complex will be replaced. I would estimate that that will cost a minimum of $450,000 and maybe over $1,000,000.

The article reported that PG&E (the local gas distributor) has some 1,231 miles of the suspect pipe. PG&E only serves California. Nationwide who knows how much of this pipe is in the ground.

Which brings me to the subject. How much money should we spend to protect "more" than 17 people nationwide over the next 40 years. I discount the event in Puerto Rico because improper installation is not a material failure. Remember that we as customers will have to pay for any expenditures made by the utility that serves us. I would suggest not all that much money should be spent to protect less than 0.5 persons a year. It is a heartless calculation but sometimes the community has more value than a very few individuals. If it is too costly to protect the very few than unfortunately the very few can not be protected.

I am not without feeling for the victims or their families. That is not the point. The point is that the potential cost to the collective appears greater than it should be to protect a very few people.

None of the above is to suggest that this particular pipe not be closely monitored and be replaced if the failure rate increases. A situation made somewhat problematic by the fact that utilities in concert with the federal government have made the actual statistics hard to find. That situation should be considered different and distinct and should be corrected.


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