Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Call on Con-Ed to Review Its Safety Procedures - Op/Ed by Albert Baldeo

Here we go again! Yet another Con Ed explosion in our neighborhoods, killing a mother of 3 kids, leaving shattered dreams and painful suffering in its wake. Ghanwatti Boodram, who saved lives as a nurse, excruciatingly lost hers, leaving her 3 sons and husband to endure a life time of grief. How inexcusable and regrettable when that tragedy is caused by human error, by a public utility company that refuses to eradicate its mistakes.

The explosion was the city's third fatal utility explosion in two years. What makes this explosion all the more unacceptable is that it comes less than two years after another gas explosion in Queens prompted calls for Con Ed to improve its protocols for evacuation, only for them to fall on deaf ears.

On the day before Thanksgiving in 2007, Kunta Ora, an elderly woman, watched as firefighters searched for the source of a gas leak on her block in Sunnyside. Con Ed took over, but gave her clearance to reenter her home. The inevitable explosion burned her entire body. She died the following day. Con Ed said at the time that the explosion had occurred before it could repair a cracked 6-inch gas main in a manhole.

How many mistakes is Con Ed allowed? How many more residents have to die, before we say enough is enough? Are we allowing Con Ed a quota on human life? The Public Service Commission, the agency charged with oversight of utilities, cannot remain complicit in Con Ed’s mistakes.

The first change Con Ed should make is rehabilitating its infrastructure, and retraining its personnel. Next, they have to implement a better plan for evacuations. When a possible gas leak is reported, fire and police should be immediately dispatched to the area to close off the streets nearby and be on the scene if an explosion occurs. If a gas leak is confirmed, evacuation procedures must immediately be implemented, using door to door knocking, calling on the phone and using bullhorns and sirens.

Con Ed should also educate the public that the odor described as rotten cabbage or rotten eggs indicates a dangerous build up of natural gas, and should trigger an evacuation.

A neighbor was alarmed enough by the rotten egg smell to call Con Ed at 3:34 p.m. that fateful Friday. A Con Ed worker arrived at 4 p.m, but found no significant trace of gas inside and began standard protocol of testing manholes in the street. The second manhole had 80% gas, 8 times more than is enough for an explosion. At 4:15 p.m., the worker called for back-up and at 4:50 p.m. an explosion leveled the house next to the one that originally reported the leak and a mother of three was killed. Con Ed’s personnel were 35 minutes too late in evacuating the block.

Con Ed did not knock on doors, nor suggest to anyone inside to evacuate the area until the leak was located and remedied, which proved to be a fatal mistake. We demand answers, and remedies now!

Albert Baldeo is a Community Advocate and a former State Senate candidate who helped Democrats take control of the State Senate since 1965.