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Increases In Fuel Spill Accidents Raise Concerns About NJ Roadway Infrastructure

Trenton, NJ - During the last five years, accidents involving fuel spills on NJ highways have increased at an alarming rate. Nearly 300 accidents in the past five years involved fuel spills as a result of tanker truck accidents or other highway incidents.1 In the year 2000, the Department of Community Affairs' Division of Fire Safety accounted for 11 incidents. By 2005, there were 49* spills - a 445 percent increase - almost all of which involved a hazardous material spill that could potentially put roadway infrastructure at risk.

The most populated state in the U.S., New Jersey maintains a staggering 36,000 miles of highway,2 which are traveled by millions of commuters daily. Drainage pipes run under and adjacent to all of these highways, serving as support for the roadway infrastructure.

Surprisingly, some of the materials used to support highway infrastructure are actually combustible, including high-density polyethylene pipe (HDPE). A fire spread into a conduit made of combustible material would result in highway collapse if the pipe were ignited.

Recently, a Rutgers University engineering group studied the risk and documented the economic consequence of combustible conduit under the state's highway system: "The performance of roadway pavement is significantly affected by the integrity of buried pipes underneath. It is important that these pipes remain structurally sound during the life of the roadway for a better performance and uninterrupted service."3

Although concrete conduit supports most of NJ's highways, there have been inroads made to substitute HDPE. These large plastic conduits sell at a discount compared to traditional concrete conduit and manufacturers have not utilized flame retardant additives to reduce or eliminate its propensity to burn. Studies have documented that large underground pipe could present a significant fire hazard by literally carrying a fire from one location to another.4 Moreover, the collapse of the conduit adjacent to or crossing under the highway will invariably result in highway collapse and catastrophic expense and loss of use for transport.5

The New Jersey Department of Transportation is presently considering enacting a specification that would permit the use of HDPE in an increasing number of settings in drainage construction. However, legislation S-146 has been introduced by Senator Len Connors (R), District 9 in the Senate, and by Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D), District 19 (Fire Safety Commission), establishing a safety standard for drainage construction by demanding that certain combustible materials in storm drain and water retention systems contain a flame retardant package. The bill is strongly supported by the fire community.


  1. NJ Dept. of Community Affairs, Division of Fire Safety
  2. "Public Roadway Mileage and Vehicle Miles Traveled," NJDOT, January 2006.
  3. "Effect of Buried Pipe Integrity On Roadway Subsidence," by Dr. Husam Najm, Dr. Nenad Gucinski and Dr. Ali Maher, Rutgers Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering, October 2005.
  4. "Flame Retardant Polyethylene Pipe," by David Edenburn, Edenburn Consulting International, February 2005.
  5. Rutgers, October 2005.

* Information available through Nov. 17th, 2005.


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