Volume 74, Number 17 | August 25 - 31 , 2004



Manhole accident turns up heat on Con Edison

By Albert Amateau

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert
Elizabeth Wallenberg by the City Hall steps after press conference last Wednesday.
The sizzling-hot manhole cover on Second Ave. at E. 13th St. where Elizabeth Wallenberg fell from her skateboard and suffered severe burns on Aug. 11 is one of 4,800 between the Battery and 96th St. that provide service access to Con Edison’s steam delivery system.

Wallenberg, who spent several hours in Beth Israel Hospital being treated for burns on her lower back and left arm that could leave permanent scars, told Con Edison about the incident two days later, prompting the company to begin sealing all of its steam manhole covers with a transparent heat-resistant epoxy.

“We’ve had the coating at high-traffic areas — crosswalks and such — and we’re coating all of them now,” Chris Olert, a Con Edison spokesperson, said on Aug.19.

Wallenburg was burned two blocks from where Jodie Lane, an East Village resident, was killed in January when she fell on a slush-covered, electrified Con Edison junction box cover while she was walking her two dogs.

Lane’s death prompted City Councilmember Margarita Lopez, whose district includes both locations, to introduce Council legislation to require Con Edison to make yearly inspections of street electrical equipment and submit inspection and repair reports to the Council and the city Department of Transportation, which would make random checks of problems and repairs in the reports to ensure compliance.

At a Wed. Aug. 18 news conference on the steps of City Hall, Lopez and John Liu, head of the Council Transportation Committee, declared that the proposed legislation would come before the full Council next month — amended to include inspection and maintenance of street steam equipment.

“We don’t want one more person dead or hurt because of Con Ed equipment,” said Lopez.

“We have to do something so that this doesn’t happen again,” said Wallenberg, who took part in the conference with her lawyer, Ronald P. Berman. “I just hope this legislation does the trick,” she added.

David McWater, chairperson of Community Board 3, which includes the locations where Jodie Lane was killed and Wallenberg was injured, said the two incidents should be more than enough to force adoption of adequate infrastructure safety guidelines. “The city has to step in to monitor these problems. I hope the Council passes it before something else happens,” he said.

Gunnar Hellekson, a resident of E. Seventh St. and an organizer of the Jodie Lane Project, an independent group doing its own monitoring of electrical safety, said the legislation would raise the level of safety requirements.

Howard Brandstein, director of the E. Sixth St. Community Center, demanded that Con Edison “take up every single manhole in our district, clean it out and make sure they are all safe.”

Olert said Con Edison had changed the steam manhole cover where Wallenberg was burned on E. 13th and Second Ave., plus two others at the same intersection, by Aug. 14 and had begun last week to replace all steam manhole covers in Manhattan with coated ones. The company provides steam — for heat, hot water and to power air conditions — to 1,825 residential and commercial buildings in Manhattan.

The company urges the public to report problems to Con Edison by phoning 1-800-75ConEd (752-6633), Olert said.

After Lane’s death, the state Public Service Commission held hearings and recently issued an order confirming that utility companies in New York State are responsible for ensuring the safety of their electrical system. The commission also developed new proposals to minimize stray voltage and is soliciting public comments, due Oct. 4, on the measures.

Mayor Bloomberg, Corporation Counsel Michael A. Cardozo and Department of Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall issued a statement on Aug. 3 endorsing the P.S.C. measures.

But Lopez said the P.S.C. recommendations, unlike the City Council legislation, do not specify independent checking of Con Edison’s inspection and maintenance reports. “State and city agencies have told us they don’t have a single person to monitor the infrastructure,” Lopez said. “Allowing a private company to inspect its own work without verification is just not acceptable. That’s why the Council would require the Department of Transportation to conduct random checks to see that Con Ed does what it says it does.

“I wonder if these accidents are connected to the expansion of Con Edison on 14th St.,” Lopez added, referring to the expansion of the company’s electric generating capacity on 14th St. east of Avenue C — a project that neighborhood activists bitterly opposed two years ago.

City Councilmember Alan Gerson, a co-sponsor of the Council legislation along with Liu and Councilmembers Michael Nelson and Peter Vallone, Jr., said he looked forward to voting for the Council bill, Intro 205-A, when it comes up next month. “We need it to ensure that we will be safe as we walk the streets of our neighborhoods,” Gerson said.

The proposed P.S.C. safety rules for electric utilities would require initial stray voltage testing on all electrical facilities to which the public could be exposed. The facilities, including street and traffic lights, would then be tested annually.

The P.S.C. would require utilities to get independent certification of the equipment used to test stray voltage and independent review of the voltage levels that affect public health and safety.

Each utility would have to notify the P.S.C. within one hour of each shock report that involves an injury and within 24 hours or by 9 a.m. the next business day of any shock report not involving injury.

The P.S.C. would require the utility to correct any stray voltage temporarily as soon as it is discovered and permanently within 45 days. In the case where stray voltage is from a customer’s equipment, Con Edison would have to notify the customer immediately and indicate how to correct the problem.

Although the P.S.C. does not specify independent oversight of repairs, it says, “Each utility should develop a quality assurance program to ensure timely and proper compliance with testing and inspection requirements.”

Comments on the proposal must be submitted, in an original with five copies, by hand to the Secretary, New York State Public Service Commission, 3 Empire State Plaza, Albany on or before Mon. Oct. 4. A decision is expected early next year.

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