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Electric Eels Threaten 7 Train Extension, MTA Board Member Says

By Jill Colvin | April 17, 2013 7:12am

NEW YORK CITY — An MTA board member is urging the transit agency to consider using plastic pipes when constructing the 7-train extension because of a voltage risk he believes could be posed by electric eels — despite experts saying the creature cannot survive here.

Board member Charles Moerdler said that when the Javits Center was being built on the West Side three decades ago, a mandatory environmental review revealed evidence of the electrified fish slithering in the Hudson River.

"When the tide washed in, the electric eels would come in alongside the area where the convention center was and that they could cause havoc with any brass, copper or iron piping because they discharge electricity," he told DNAinfo.com New York.

To try to prevent potential electrical issues at the Javits, Moerdler, an attorney who was representing the center at the time, appealed to the city's Board of Standards and Appeals, which granted a rare waiver allowing it to use plastic instead of metal pipes.

"It was the first and only time in the City of New York where plastic plumbing was authorized," he recalled. "They said, you can't take that chance. If you have the pipes underneath the convention center suddenly get charged, you've got a big problem."

He wondered whether a similar waiver should be considered as crews complete the 7-train extension and develop the Hudson Yards.

"That's the issue. Does it apply to the 7 line and does it apply to the area where the Hudson Yards is?" he asked.

DNAinfo.com New York could not find any mention of electric eels or potential electrical issues in the March 1980 Final Environmental Impact Statement for the center, obtained from the archives of New York's Empire State Development.

But, according to a 1980 entry in the City Record, the New York Convention Center Development Corporation was indeed granted a request to use PVC piping for all of its underground and storm water and plumbing drainage systems by the board.

"The soil condition in this area is highly corrosive as a result of relatively low resistivity coupled with the flow of stray D.C. current and presence of high ground water conditions and tidal flow from the Hudson River is such as to accelerate the deterioration of metal piping," read the waiver.

"The use of plastic piping in lieu of cast iron at this particular location be permitted," it read.

But marine wildlife experts told DNAinfo that electric eels pose zero risk to the MTA, or anything else along the Hudson, because they don't live in the waterway.

“I can tell you definitively there are no electric eels in New York City," said Chris Bowser, the eel project coordinator at the Hudson River Eel Project and a science educator for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, who also works for the Cornell University's Water Resource Institute.

Bowser said that electric eels aren't equipped to live in the New York Harbor. For one, they live in fresh water and couldn't survive in the Hudson's brackish environment, he said. They're also tropical creatures that could never last the winter, even if they were somehow introduced.

“I don't think you have to worry about electric eel damage," he said.

The river is, however, home to many non-electric American Eels, which he said are frequently mistaken for the electric variety.

“They love it!” he said of the city's waterways.

He added that those critters could easily wiggle inside any plumbing or piping along the shoreline, but said he'd never heard of any eel causing damage.

Asked if the MTA would consider exploring using plastic piping to protect from eel damage, spokesman Adam Lisberg said "No."