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East Harlem Pols Criticize Con Edison at Explosion Hearing

By Jeff Mays | May 2, 2014 5:52pm | Updated on May 2, 2014 7:28pm
 Two East Harlem state legislators blasted the head of Con Edison Friday after an Assembly hearing on improving gas safety for not having adequate plans to improve the utility following the  deadly March 12 East Harlem gas explosion and building collapse  that left eight people dead and hundreds displaced from their homes.
East Harlem Explosion Assembly Hearing
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LOWER MANHATTAN — Two East Harlem lawmakers blasted the head of Con Edison Friday for not having adequate plans to improve its infrastructure following the deadly gas explosion and building collapse that left eight people dead and hundreds displaced from their homes.

At a state Assembly hearing on improving gas safety, Con Edison President Craig Ivey declined to answer specific questions about the March 12 explosion which leveled both 1644 and 1646 Park Ave., citing the ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

"All of us at Con Edison are deeply saddened and concerned about the tragedy in East Harlem," Ivey said in written testimony. "We want to get to the bottom of what happened, and we must do all we can to prevent the chance of anything like that from happening again."

Ivey listed several initiatives that Con Edison is taking in the wake of the explosion. The major change is integrating a mobile gas leak detection system that is currently used once per year into a fleet of vehicles that scan the electric delivery system 12 times per year to check for stray voltage.

Ivey also said the agency is moving to have the FDNY receive all reports of gas odors via 911 and has also ramped up its outreach to the public about how to respond to a gas leak.

Still, state Sen. Bill Perkins and Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez said they found Ivey's response lacking.

"They made a mistake in what I believe was the negligent way they maintained the leaky pipes in our community," said Perkins. "There did not seem to be a concrete effort to get this problem fixed until this tragedy happened."

Rodriguez said he was disappointed to hear the rate at which public utilities across the state are replacing aging and potentially leaky gas lines.

Of Con Edison's 4,300 miles of distribution gas mains, about 2,200 of it is categorized as "leak prone," officials from Con Edison and the New York State Public Service Commission, which regulates the utilities, confirmed.

Ivey said Con Edison is ramping up its gas main replacement to 65 miles per year up from 55 miles following the East Harlem blast. But at that rate it would still take almost 34 years to replace the "leak prone" lines.

"That's not going to be able to make an impact on folks living in really high risk areas," Rodriguez said. "We are putting people at risk."

Initial results from the NTSB's investigation showed that there were high levels of gas in the soil. An 8-inch gas pipe that ran below Park Avenue was found to be leaky and portions of a 12 inch water main also had leaks.

NTSB took sections of pipes back to its lab to continue the investigation. Multiple victims of the explosion have filed wrongful death suits.

Throughout New York state there are 11,000 miles of "leak prone" gas lines. Part of the problem is the cost of replacing the aging infrastructure. Con Edison estimates that replacing all the cast iron and unprotected steel gas mains would cost $10 billion.

Agencies are also examining technologies that would improve leak detection. Right now, the public remains the first and best line of defense.

But given that residents around the East Harlem explosion claim to have frequently smelled gas even though Con Edison says no one called it in until just minutes before the blast, something needs to change with that system, said Rodriguez.

"I'd like to see some of the gas detection technology looked at faster and implemented in a much quicker way than the haphazard way it's being allowed to move forward now," he said.