The deaths of two Con Edison workers, who were
severely burned in a manhole explosion in late June,
came just five months after a woman walking her dog on East
11th Street was killed by electric voltage coming from
a metal plate on the street.
These are just the most tragic incidents involving the city's electricity infrastructure,
according to Mark Williams, business agent for Local
1-2, the Utility Workers Union of America, who cites a
series of manhole explosions and underground fires,
one of which forced several buildings in a Brooklyn
neighborhood to be evacuated due to high levels of
carbon monoxide. Last year, there were 4,602 manhole
incidents according to the Fire Department, reportedly
a surge from just 2,100 such problems in 2002.
Why do these dangerous incidents occur?
"Con Edison does
not invest resources in its overhead and underground
infrastructure, " Williams charges. "It tells union workers to
cut corners and rush through jobs."
A report by New York City's chief lawyer to the State Public Service Commission,
as explained in the New
York Times, found that there are currently 5,700 street
signals waiting to be fixed, which reportedly cause
dangerous "stray voltage." On average, the report found
that Con Edison took two and a half years to repair
broken street lights, and, often, they are fixed with
temporary solutions, which make the problem worse.
For its part, Con Edison says the problem of stray voltage is as much the
city's fault as its own; the city has the responsibility for inspecting broken
street lights. The company also says it is in fact spending a total of
$700 million in
2004 to improve the city's electricity infrastructure
and meet high demand during summer months. The
improvements include the construction of new
substations, the installation of miles of new cables
and the replacement of equipment damaged on September
Testimony at a recent City Council hearing maintained
that the problem is the poor maintenance and lack of
inspection of the city's electrical infrastructure.
In addition, it is difficult to track problems and
complaints because calls to 311 are passed on directly
to Con Edison, making it hard for the city to know
whether problems are resolved. Susan Stetzer, a
representative of Community Board 3 Manhattan -- the
district in which the woman walking her dog, Jodi
Lane, was killed -- said that, despite several calls to
311, a recent problem in the neighborhood went
unresolved for weeks. When she called to follow up
she found that the complaint had been completely lost.
At a February 12 hearing, which followed the death of
Jodi Lane, the City Council's Transportation Committee
was shocked to learn that neither the New York State
Public Service Commission nor the City Department of
Transportation regularly conducts inspections of the
electrical infrastructure. In fact, the only time
inspectors are dispatched is when a serious injury or
fatality occurs. Con Edison also admitted that it
does not routinely inspect its equipment.
Currently, the City Council's Transportation Committee
has proposed a law which would require annual
inspections, and periodic written reports to the
council itself. The law would also require that
underground and street-level electrical equipment be
covered with non-conductive
The proposed law has received widespread support by
community leaders and public officials who say that it
will make the city safer.
Such a law, though, would impose additional costs both
on the New York City Department of Transportation and
on Con Edison. That is one reason Con Edison opposes
Over the past 10 years, Con Edison has reduced
electric rates seven times, though
their own costs have risen. During the same period,
electricity use has grown by 20 percent and the
company has spent $4.5 billion in upgrades and
So in April, Con Edison filed a request to increase
electricity rates by an average of 6.7 percent
beginning in April 2005 when the current rate
agreement with the Public Service Commission expires.
The increase would amount to about $5.40 for a typical
residential customer and would affect the company's
3.1 million customers in New York City and Westchester
County. According to Con Edison, the increase is
necessary in order to raise a needed $550 million for
"We will be making some of the largest investments in
our energy infrastructure that have been seen in
decades," said Joan S. Freilich, executive vice
president and chief financial officer of Con Edison.
"We understand that no one likes to hear about
increasing costs and how they impact monthly expenses,
but the increases we are requesting will make possible
the system upgrades necessary to provide the reliable
and safe delivery of electricity required by the
nearly nine million people we serve."
Over the next year, the Public Service Commission will
hear from consumer groups, environmental organizations
and elected officials on whether to approve the
company's rate increase. During this time, the
commission will take the company's safety record and
the vital need for infrastructure upgrades into
Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.
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