The carcinogen asbestos has been found in dust and debris hurled into midtown Manhattan by an evening rush-hour Con Edison steam pipe explosion July 18. The blast at 41st Street and Lexington Ave. opened a 25-foot car-swallowing crater in the asphalt and sent a column of steam hundreds of feet into the air—initially sparking fears of a terrorist attack. Said witness Debbie Tontodonato to Newsday: “We panicked. I think everyone thought the worst. Thank God it wasn’t.” But this statement just demonstrates how much horror New Yorkers have come to view as acceptable in this uneasy age. Forty-four were injured in the blast, and Lois Baumerich, of Hawthorne, NJ, died of cardiac arrest.
And the toll may not be over. The city’s Office of Emergency Management will continue to test the debris after finding asbestos in six of 10 samples. “People who may [have come] into contact with the steam or debris should take a shower and place their clothes in plastic bags for cleaning or disposal,” a statement from the office said. A four square-block area around the blast is a “frozen zone,” with residents ordered to stay indoors.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters the pipe that exploded was installed in 1924, and apparently cold water was leaking in. But Con Ed CEO Ed Burke said the site had been inspected as recently as six weeks ago.
In late 1994, after five years of denials, Con Ed admitted in court that for four days it failed to tell federal authorities that asbestos had been released in the Gramercy Park blast. The utility pleaded guilty to conspiracy and environmental law violations in Federal District Court in Manhattan. Constantine J. Papakrasas, a former Con Edison steam-operations executive, was sentenced to a fine of $5,000. (NYT, Nov. 1, 1994; Con Edison letter to stockholders, April 1995)
Although little-noted even by city media, the blast also comes three weeks after the first blackouts of the season—when short outages in the West Bronx, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Staten Island and Queens’ Middle Village left some half a million intermittently without power June 27 and 28—apparently due to a lightning strike at a Queens substation. (NY1, June 29)
Politicians made all the requisite noises. Assemblyman Michael Gianaris blasted Con Ed as an “unreliable, unaccountable monopoly,” Councilman Peter Vallone charged “the same negligent, arrogant people” are running the company, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney said the outages were “an ominous sign for the rest of the summer.” (Queens Gazette, July 4)
But, as we stated at the time of last summer’s blackout, things are only likely to deteriorate as long as the deregulation regime remains in place—a radical rollback of public oversight and corporate accountability instated virtually without debate in the name of “free markets.” Until this is overturned, the protests are—forgive the pun—so much hot air.
See our last post on fear in New York City.