Con Ed at center of Vallone, Liu City Hall inquiries

By Philip Newman

City council members reacted with concern and consternation in questioning Consolidated Edison and government officials last Thursday in the aftermath of the electrocution of a woman in the East Village by what the utility calls “stray voltage.”

“This system is not working,” said Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), expressing doubt the public could count on the utility to report the streets were safe for pedestrians. “It’s like the fox guarding the hen house.”

In fact, Vallone, chairman of the Council’s Public Safety Committee, said he would soon introduce legislation to allow the city to carry out periodic checks of Con Ed electrical facilities beneath the sidewalks.

Some council members appeared taken aback at what they saw as a serious lack of oversight and the question of accountability over Con Ed’s maintenance of the vast underground network of electric cables and facilities beneath the streets.

Con Ed first identified 106 so-called “hot spots” in equipment throughout New York City, but later the state Public Service Commission reported that the utility had found “voltage conditions” at a total of 409 locations.

The utility found that of the 550,000 lampposts, manhole covers and service box lids throughout the five boroughs that it inspected for what it called “stray voltage,” a lamppost at 53rd Avenue and Oceania Street in Bayside was charged with 140 volts, the highest in the city.

Public Service Commission officials told a hearing of the City Council Transportation Committee, chaired by Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) , that Con Ed had reported 15 shocks to people over five years.

But James Gallagher of the Public Service Commission said his agency had found 494 incidents reported by the public to Con Ed. Since the shocks had resulted in no deaths or serious injuries, Con Ed believed that under state regulations they were not required to report them, Gallagher told the hearing.

Kevin Burke, president and chief operating officer of Con Ed, told the hearing the utility had reported all that regulations required.

“We take full responsibility — we have learned from this tragedy,” said Burke, who reported Con Edison had inspected 259,904 underground electrical wiring structures by Feb. 12 in a round-the-clock inspection effort and found “no stray voltage” in 99.05 percent of these locations.”

Committee Chairman Liu interrupted at that point to remind Burke that Jodie Lane, 30, was killed by “that .05 of a percent” on East 11th Street while she was walking her dogs.

Con Ed said it will now require annual inspections of manhole covers and electrical service boxes and plans to report all cases of shock, even those not causing injury.

State Public Service Commission and New York City Department of Transportation officials, as well as Burke, all came under intense questioning by Liu, Vallone, Councilman Oliver Koppell (D-Bronx) and Councilwoman Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights).

“I believe your term ‘stray voltage’ sounds like a euphemism,” Liu told Burke. “Perhaps ‘misdirected voltage’ might be more accurate.”

Although Vallone was critical of Con Ed, he praised Burke for showing up.

“You could have sent someone else, but you chose to come here by yourself and face the music,” Vallone said.

Indeed, while most executives of corporations and government agencies appear at hearings surrounded by lawyers and assistants with whom they frequently confer, Burke, an electrical engineer as well as a top executive, sat alone at the witness table, speaking only to his questioners.

Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 136.

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