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Volume 77, Number 10 | August 08 - 14, 2007

Downtowners are steamed about more than steam pipes

Villager photo by Lorcan Otway

Con Edison’s East River steam and power plant at the east end of E. 14th St.

By Lucas Mann

After an earth-shattering geyser of steam, dirt and asbestos shot into the Midtown sky on July 18, Con Edison’s steam pipe system has been thrust into the spotlight. With the steam-generating capacity at Con Ed’s E. 14th St. plant recently having been expanded, and the maze of both new and presumably quite old steam pipes that run from there through the East Village, one might have thought the Midtown explosion also would have hit close to home Downtown.

East Village residents, however, did not see steam pipes as one of their greatest concerns about Con Ed.

“It seems to me that the problem with the 42nd St. pipes is that they were so old,” said Susan Stetzer, district manager of Community Board 3. “I don’t know how old the 14th St. pipes are. I know the expansion of the power at 14th St. has seen a lot of new pipes put in, but I don’t know the age of some of the older ones already in place. There hasn’t been talk of it, though. It’s a non-issue. There is no story.”

Alonso Quiroz, a Con Ed spokesperson, said no speculations could be made yet about other steam facilities in New York.

“We’re not sure what exactly happened at Grand Central yet,” he said last week. “We’re just excavating the crater now. Until we isolate the pipe, we cannot be sure about what caused the explosion. No comparisons to other facilities can be made now.”

Asked if the age of the pipes were a concern, Quiroz said, “Some of the pipes have been updated and some haven’t; so it all depends on the specific pipe or equipment. And the age of the equipment doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s unreliable. I can live in a house from 1900, but if I fix the roof and windows and keep investing money in it, that house is still good.”

Numbers suggest, though, that there are some “windows and roofs” — or, rather, pipes — that still need fixing. Steam pipe incident reports from 2006 through May 2007, from the New York State Public Service Commission, the agency that regulates Con Ed, show an average of 35.2 “emergency steam reports” per month in Manhattan. The steam company must report any death, injury, damage to property or airborne release of asbestos, as well as any breakdown that results in an interruption of steam service to two or more customers.

However, the incident reports don’t differentiate between those that cause minor infrastructure breakdowns versus those that cause serious personal injury or death. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of reports are not dangerous incidents, probably falling into the category of service interruption; but incidents still occur at a rate of more than one per day. But there was no evidence of the concentration of steam pipes in the East Village having a significant amount of problems. There were only 2.2 incidents per month reported from addresses in the Stuyvesant Town area and the East Village.

The Public Service Commission is currently making investigations into the cause of the Grand Central explosion and has requested for review all of Con Ed’s steam pipe inspections for the last five years.

“We are having a hearing on Aug. 7 that will look into issues of maintenance and vulnerability for the entire steam system, not just the site of the explosion,” said Councilmember Dan Garodnick, whose district covers the Grand Central area and extends down to the E. 14th St. steam facility. “There are 105 miles of steam pipes in New York City and many are quite old,” Garodnick said. “We need to have a clearer picture of the condition of these pipes. Con Ed needs to let us know.”

Borough President Scott Stringer voiced the same concern.

“These are very old pipes and fragile underground operations,” Stringer said. “We’re in a very serious situation here, from steam pipes to the energy grid. Now we’re trying to figure out the best approach to these problems. In the coming months we are going to try to look at the whole of Con Ed operations, including the 14th St. facility. Obviously, the inspection system that we have now leaves a lot to be desired.”

At the moment, though, East Village residents are more concerned with general infrastructure problems affecting them right now.

“There was just a sewer pipe that burst on Seventh St. between Second and Third Aves.,” said Carol Joyce, speaking last week. “So much building is going on and all these accidents are happening. That’s what we’re concerned about right now.”

Added Jean Standish, an E. Sixth St. resident, “We have other infrastructure problems, so steam pipes aren’t the highest priority.”

Still, the East Village is no stranger to Con Ed power outages and dangerous incidents and there is a general wariness.

“Con Edison has not been maintaining their infrastructure,” said Annie Wilson, an East Village resident and chairperson of the Energy Committee for the Sierra Club of New York. “The union consistently has concerns for worker safety,” Wilson said.

Wilson also keenly remembers the death of Jodie Lane on E. 11th St. four years ago and sees the tragic electrocution as a symbol of a consistent pattern of shoddy infrastructure maintenance. Wilson said she sees signs of the same problems right now.

“Two and a half weeks ago, I saw workers digging up 13th and Avenue A,” she said. “I asked what they were doing and they said Con Ed had found some gas pipes that were 100 years old and ready to explode and had subcontracted them to make repairs.”

The steam-pipe explosion near Grand Central is not reason for panic but it must not be ignored, stressed Queens Assemblymember Michael Gianaris. Gianaris advocates creating an independent inspection entity to monitor Con Ed, instead of waiting for the utility company’s reports.

“This was only the second major [steam-pipe] explosion in 20 years, so there’s no immediate cause for concern,” Gianaris said. “But a huge problem is that we don’t know what causes these incidents when something goes wrong. I, for one, won’t take Con Ed’s word for it. I know they’ve been spending less and less on their entire steam system maintenance for the last three years. I also know that they send people to drive around the city and visually inspect steam sites after a big rainstorm to try and spot problems. There have to be more efficient methods.”

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