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Advocates Call for Stiffer Con Ed Protocols in Wake of East River Oil Spill

By Gwynne Hogan | May 15, 2017 9:45am
 Workers have recovered 560 gallons of synthetic mineral oil from the East River, officials said.
Workers have recovered 560 gallons of synthetic mineral oil from the East River, officials said.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

BROOKLYN — Environmentalists are calling for better protections around waterfront electrical substations in the wake of a "catastrophic" transformer failure at a Con Edison's DUMBO location that likely leached thousands of gallons of mineral oil into the East River.

While the Sunday afternoon transformer failure occurred on land, the oil swiftly flowed across the porous ground into the river nearby, said John Lipscomb, a clean water advocate with Riverkeeper, who has been keeping tabs on cleanup efforts from the U.S. Coast Guard, the State's Department of Environmental Conservation and the public utility. 

He's now urging state regulators and the utility company to create impermeable barriers around the transformers that would capture the oil before it ends up in the river in the event of future failures.

"There's an opportunity to do something constructive, that's not just punitive," Lipscomb said. "We'd really be much happier if in light of this accident, we [find a way] to make the ground under these transformers impervious and... to create a system for capturing future spills."

"We hope that protections are ramped up as a result," he said.

As of Friday, Con Edison estimated that of the 30,600 gallons of mineral oil missing from the transformer after the Sunday failure, 560 had been fished out of the East River.

The U.S. Coast Guard estimated that about 5,000 more gallons ended up in the river, based on averages from other cleanups, where they're generally are able to capture 10 percent of the oil.

But advocates warned that the amount that actually end up in the waterway is likely much greater because of swift currents in the East River that make it one of the most complicated places to conduct a cleanup.

The transformer oil collected during the cleanup was found to have low levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a known carcinogen, at around 6 to 8 parts per million, according to Con Edison. The oil can hurt fish and wildlife in heavy concentrations, officials said.

A similar transformer failure took place in 2009, where 200 gallons of dielectric oil ended up in The Bronx River, according to a 2014 Con Edison report presented at an International Oil Spill Conference.

Allan Drury, a spokesman for Con Edison, said he could not provide more information on the prior spill.

Con Edison Vice president of Environment Health & Safety Andrea Schmitz said they, "deeply regret this happened and we are doing everything possible to make sure we conduct the cleanup as safely, thoroughly and quickly as possible."

The utility has over 30 million gallons of dielectric oil stored in transformers in facilities in their network, according to the 2014 report.

If you have questions about the cleanup you can call Con Edison at 212-358-4562.