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Queens Chronicle

Utility Companies Zapped—City Officials Call For Electrical System Upgrade

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Posted: Thursday, February 5, 2004 12:00 am

Last month’s horrific accident in which a woman was electrocuted while walking her dogs in the East Village could have been prevented, city and state officials charged on Tuesday, if utility companies had more enhanced safety procedures in place.

And, according to one local civic leader, if the city’s aging electrical system is not immediately upgraded, it may be only a matter of time before a similar tragedy repeats itself in Queens.

“We have found dozens of exposed live wires in Queens, which are potential hazards,” said Juniper Park Civic Association President Bob Holden.

The civic leader has complained to Con Edison about exposed live wiring on neighborhood streets for several years. In 2000, Juniper Park Civic members found dozens of locations in Middle Village where exposed wiring, which had been re-taped temporarily around the outside of light poles—known as shunts—had worn away.

In one instance in the park, Holden found young children using a live wire attached to a light pole as a swing. Before he could stop them, the wire exploded, knocking out power on a adjacent street.

The civic group showed the potentially deadly conditions to various news outlets and within months, Con Edison announced it would spend $1.2 million to upgrade its equipment in Middle Village.

And, while the situation has improved over the last three years in Middle Village, Holden said the electrical conditions remain as dangerous as ever in parts of Forest Hills and Glendale.

He points to exposed wires attached to a light pole at the corner of Yellowstone Boulevard and Clyde Street in Forest Hills. He discovered another shunt at the corner of 70th Avenue and Austin Street, also in Forest Hills.

However, when he complained about the potential hazards at the latter location, Holden said Con Edison responded by covering the box with brown paper, which has since worn away.

“You touch these wires and you’re dead,” Holden explained. “Con Edison needs to do things the proper way and stop cutting corners. They are putting profits and the bottom line above human lives.”

Community Board 6 District Manager Kathleen Histon said the city is replacing many of the old light poles in Forest Hills with newer, more decorative ones.

And, while she couldn’t confirm whether the two light poles Holden photographed are among those being changed over, Histon said she has received very few complaints about exposed live wiring.

A Con Edison spokesperson did not respond to inquiries about the status of the Forest Hills light poles.

However, the utility company did issue a statement on Tuesday announcing that of the 100,000 light poles inspected thus far in the five boroughs and Westchester County, 157 were found with stray voltage.

In addition, after testing more than half of its 250,000 manhole and service box covers, Con Edison found 110 hot spots with errant voltage.

The five most troublesome spots—three in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn and one in Westchester—registered more than 120 volts. The January 16th accident which killed graduate school student Jodie Lane registered only 57 volts.

Each of the 267 locations have since been repaired, Con Edison officials said, adding that more than 1,000 workers have been dispatched to inspect the remaining locations.

“Inspections also continue as part of routine maintenance and in response to calls from customers who suspect a potential problem,” the statement said. “Testing for stray voltage will be an ongoing program and the company will test all of its manhole covers and service boxes annually.”

According to city and state officials, testing may no longer be enough. Council Speaker Gifford Miller said the Transportation Committee will hold a hearing on February 12th into Con Edison’s maintenance and safety procedures.

“These temporary cables that are laid across neighborhood lawns and busy roads, and dangle from utility poles are a danger to our city and must be replaced,” Miller said at a City Hall press conference. “No one should ever live in fear that their next step could be their last.”

Transportation Chairman John Liu of Flushing added that the accident which killed Lane could have been prevented if the city’s electrical infrastructure had been properly maintained.

“It’s outrageous that you can be electrocuted walking on the sidewalks of New York City,” Liu said.

Members of the Utility Workers of America union added that the practice of temporary shunts should be banned. Union President Manny Hellen said that at the minimum, utility companies should adopt new protective measures, such as enhanced insulation, to protect the public while repairs are ongoing.

“The hit-and-run approach, using temporary cable, is less expensive than replacing damaged service lines and is at great expense to the safety of the public and thousands of Con Edison customers,” Hellen said.

Assemblyman Michael Gianaris of Astoria also announced plans to introduce legislation calling for an annual inspection of all 250,000 Con Edison service boxes.

“It is outrageous that these electrical boxes were not inspected enough to recognize this problem before someone lost her life,” Gianaris said. “An annual review of these facilities will help prevent a repeat of last week’s tragedy.”

Welcome to the discussion.