Is it a shock? Doubts grow about Con Ed stray voltage

By Alex Schmidt

When Joe Kelly sold 10,000 feet of vinyl insulator to Con Edison to help prevent stray electrical currents from harming people and animals on New York City’s streets, he was expecting to see a reorder.

“So I called them and said, ‘What’s going on, when are you going to need more?’ Because 10,000 of these will only cover 1,000 manholes and there are 260,000 manholes [and junction boxes] in New York,” Kelly said. “But the engineers I was working with said it was ‘in the system and when we get low on it we’ll reorder more.’… I obviously have a selfish motive in following up,” Kelly said, “but I don’t think that other people and animals should be harmed where there’s a solution to the situation.”

Kelly’s experience with Con Edison reflects growing concerns that the company is still not doing enough and that initiatives aimed at reducing electrical accidents following Jodie Lane’s death are not working.

The utility paid a $7.2 million settlement to Lane’s family after she was killed two years ago when she fell on a slush-covered Con Edison junction box in the East Village. Kelly figures it would cost Con Edison $19 million to insulate its entire system using his product, which allows water, but not electricity, to pass through it.

Lane, a 30 year-old Ph.D. student, was electrocuted on Jan. 16, 2004. The collective outcry from her family members and the community led to a widely touted initiative: a yearly report compiled by Con Edison on the city’s electrical “hot spots” that would be reviewed by the New York State Public Service Commission. The first of these reports, delivered to the P.S.C. last month, found 1,151 instances of stray electricity, some with potentially lethal levels of voltage, at Con Edison street utilities, such as junction boxes and manhole covers, and streetlights, for which Con Ed supplies the electricity.

Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. was instrumental in passing the current legislation, but he doubts its efficacy. “Right now, Con Ed reports to P.S.C. exactly what Con Ed did wrong and how much they should be fined,” he said. To create a certain amount of oversight, Vallone passed an additional bill, whereby, for the first time, the city’s Department of Transportation would step in and conduct 250 of its own inspections of Con Edison properties. Said Vallone, “P.S.C. doesn’t have any of its own inspectors to oversee the work…. This isn’t the city’s responsibility but we have to step in because the state has dropped the ball.”

Anne Dalton, a spokesperson for the Public Service Commission, said that, “There are big time penalties if Con Edison doesn’t comply. Their revenues can be adjusted if there is noncompliance with the points outlined.” Dalton did not say how noncompliance would be assessed or who would conduct oversight to confirm the reports or enforce testing. She was not aware of any relationship with D.O.T. in the enforcement of Con Edison’s testing.

Testing, however, is only one potential initiative to ensure citywide electrical safety, and Kelly’s contact with Con Edison indicates that there are other preventative measures that the company, state and city could be taking. Kelly sold 60,000 nonconductive vinyl liners to the city of Boston for them to insulate their streetlight pull boxes. James W. Hunt, Boston’s chief of Environmental and Energy Services, said that this initiative and others, such as seeking a noncorrosive alternative to salt for melting snow and using nonconductive materials for streetlamps, were being pursued following the issuance of a report by the Joint Task Force on Electrical Safety. That task force, a partnership between Boston’s utilities provider, NStar, and the municipal government, was formed after dogs were harmed by stray electricity on Boston’s streets. No such official partnership or force exists in New York.

Chris Olert, a Con Edison spokesperson, confirmed that the company had purchased the materials from Kelly but that, “So far they have not been proven to be practical on a widespread basis, and they may not be practical.” He did not have any time frame on when evaluation of the insulators bought from Kelly’s company would be completed. Olert did point out that Con Edison had developed and purchased stray-voltage monitors and that the company would be buying more. The voltage monitors will help Con Edison conduct the testing that the P.S.C. report requires.

As Vallone points out of the current oversight system, “it is allowing the fox to oversee the hounds,” and there is no body to enforce testing of new technologies and no insurance that Con Edison will continue to do so. Olert did assert, however, that Con Edison is looking into “other ways to protect and monitor the system.” Vallone suggested that “The Boston report has some great ideas, and the joint task force is a great idea.”

A task force along the lines of the one in Boston would probably go a long way toward insuring safer conditions. But with the city having decided that P.S.C.’s oversight is insufficient and that the Department of Transportation needs to check up on Con Edison, everyone’s pointing the finger at the other guy, and, at this point, it’s unclear who would form such a partnership.