Volume 73, Number 40 | February 04 - 10, 2004

Con Ed: Shoddy repair caused box’s electrification

By Albert Amateau

Con Edison released a report last Thursday on its investigation of why the E. 11th St. junction box that killed East Villager Jodie Lane was electrified. The report said an inspection of the junction box showed that a wire, which was supposed to have two layers of insulation, one with plastic tape and the other with rubber, had only one layer of plastic tape.

Con Edison said that a wire improperly insulated during a maintenance check in January 2003 in the junction box contributed to the Jan. 16 accident that killed Lane.

“We found an insulated wire that had a partially exposed end that either touched or came in close proximity to the metal frame of the service box,” said the Con Edison statement that was part of the report.

The repair crew that inspected the box in front of 342 E. 11th St. after the accident found 57 volts of electricity running up the side of the box to the plate above, according to the report.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg commended Con Edison in a Jan. 29 statement for its “straightforward and responsible assessment of the tragic events.” The mayor said the Department of Transportation would work with the utility company to make sure that “they can provide electricity safely to all New Yorkers.”

Con Edison said it would finish checking all of its 250,000 junction boxes and manholes within a month.

Meanwhile, more “hot spots” — electrified metal utility covers on the street or areas of the sidewalk — continued to be found last week in the East Village. The New York Post reported on Friday that an electrician the paper had hired found that a manhole in front of 95 Pitt St. had a potentially fatal charge of 117 volts and a junction box in front of 289 E. Fourth St. had a 30-volt charge, enough to shock a dog.

In response to the death of Lane, Community Board 3 last week urged Con Edison to develop a safety plan and report back to the board.

David Gmach, director of Manhattan public affairs for Con Edison, addressed the community board on Tues.

Jan. 27.

“The death of Jodie Lane was a tragic accident,” said Gmach at the Tuesday C.B.3 meeting. “We’re taking this very seriously and we’re putting considerable manpower into a thorough review,” he added. Gmach said Con Edison would return to C.B.3 to report on the investigation but he was not able to say when.

In the C.B.3 district between 14th St. and the Brooklyn Bridge from Bowery and Baxter St. to the East River, there are 650 junction boxes in the streets, said Gunnar Hellekson, of E. Seventh St., who reported on the utility company’s meeting last week with Board 3’s Public Safety Committee. “Con Ed said they were perfectly safe but they haven’t told us what went wrong and what they’re going to do in the future,” said Hellekson.

While the C.B. 3 resolution suggested that salt used to melt snow was believed to contribute to the cable corrosion that electrified the fatal junction box on E. 11th St. just east of First Ave., a representative of the Utility Workers Union who appeared at the board meeting disputed the point.

“Salt was not the reason Ms. Lane died,” said Mark Williams, the union representative. “Cable covering was cracked because of Con Ed’s lack of maintenance,” he charged. In addition, Williams contended that the deadly service box was too small and crowded, pushing cables up to the cover and electrifying it. Lack of a device known as a limiter in the box, which acts as a fuse, was another factor in the accident, said Williams. He also contended that Con Edison was using untrained clerical staff and inadequate methods to test manholes for potential danger.

Williams made the remarks before Gmach arrived at the meeting, but he later asked the Con Edison executive a direct question about salt. Gmach replied that Con Edison has not attributed salt use to the accident on E. 11th St.

“We are all squeezed into limited space in the streets,” said Gmach in response to the suggestion that electrical junction boxes should be larger and less crowded, noting that city water and sewer mains along with telephone lines share the infrastructure with the electric distribution system.

“It’s a tight situation,” Gmach said, but he insisted that people should feel safe. Gmach acknowledged, however, that the death of a carriage horse on the street a few years ago was attributed to electrocution of a manhole cover and at least three dogs were electrocuted at the same time. Lane’s two dogs were shocked and injured in the Jan. 16 accident.

Gmach said that last year Con Edison received about 100 complaints about people or dogs receiving electric shocks from street equipment but the reports have increased enormously in the two weeks since the accident.

In related news, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Councilmember John Liu, chairperson of the Council’s Committee on Transportation, were joined by Local 1-2 president Manny Hellen of the Utility Workers of America and Ed Ott of the Central Labor Council yesterday in calling on Con Ed to immediately upgrade procedures for inspection, repair, maintenance and upgrading of its transmission and distribution system as it relates to public safety and worker protection.

According to a press release for the event, prior to Lane’s death, “many animals have been zapped as a result of temporary shunts — thousands of quick-fix cables that are laid across lawns, grounds, busy roads, manholes or dangle from utility poles — as opposed to replacing damaged service with permanent repairs.”


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