The Environmental Scandal That’s Happening Right Beneath Your Feet

Uprising: Winner of the 2013 AAAS Kavli award for online science journalism.

Published in
28 min readNov 6, 2013


BY THE TIME BOB ACKLEY crossed the Harlem River into Manhattan he’d been up for nearly four hours. It was still dark, not yet seven on a Sunday morning: the best time of the week to go sniffing for gas.

The back seat of his hatchback was littered with hi-tech equipment. Plastic hoses and cables connected a web of instruments: a laser spectrometer, a computer, GPS equipment, a pump, and a fan. The jumble of gadgets purred reassuringly as he drove.

Few people understand the streets of America’s cities the way Ackley does. He’s spent almost three decades documenting leaky gas pipelines and alerting utility companies to potential danger. Now he can read the street like a hunter reads animal tracks; some academics call him the “urban naturalist”.

As he drove through New York, Ackley looked for the signs that could point to possible gas leaks. Wearing a tattered winter jacket and peering out from beneath a baseball cap that proclaimed “Life is Simple, Eat, Sleep, Fish”, he searched for spray-painted signs that mark underground pipes and wires.

He watched the weather, knowing storms bring low-pressure systems that draw gas up from underground. Small holes drilled into the pavement; long narrow patches of asphalt; dead grass on the side of a street: these are all good indicators of past — and perhaps ongoing — leaks.

Even so, the Manhattan streetscape was hard to read that December morning. Concrete and asphalt ran from building to building without a blade of grass in between.

The only escape routes for gas were manhole covers.

“I’ve never had such a hard time pinpointing leaks,” Ackley said. “It’s as tight as a bull’s ass.”