Beth Fertig is WNYC’s Contributing Editor for Education. She previously covered politics, which included City Hall during the Giuliani administration, and the U.S. Senate campaigns of Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. She also covered transportation and infrastructure.
Con Edison After Jodie Lane
Saturday, January 15, 2005
New York, NY –
One year ago this weekend, a thirty-year old woman was accidentally electrocuted while walking her two dogs in the East Village. Jodie Lane stepped on a metal service box that was not properly insulated by Con Edison. Lane was the first New Yorker killed by stray voltage. WNYC’s Beth Fertig has more on what's happened since then.
They never knew each other. But 29 year old Gunnar Hellekson felt like he could have known Jodie Lane when he heard about her death from stray voltage on East 11th street.
HELLEKSON: It very well could have been me. I mean we're the same age. We both own dogs. It was the same neighborhood.
Hellekson volunteers for the Tompkins Square Park dog run, and is a computer consultant to non-profits. Last year he co-founded the Jodie Lane Project. It's a coalition of community groups. Hellekson says Con Edison wasn’t required to report stray voltage from its manholes and service boxes in the streets, unless there were injuries.
HELLEKSON: Most of the quarter of a million pieces of equipment that Con Ed maintains that can cause this stray voltage had never been inspected for this before. As far as Con Edison was concerned it was a hole in the ground that they run wires through and it didn't require any further scrutiny, if electricity was passing through it was perfectly fine.
Service boxes are rectangular plates in the street where workers have access to electrical wires. Stray voltage is caused when these wires are corroded by water and salt during winter – or jarred loose by rumbling traffic. It's a common problem.
CLENDENIN: We have always spent hundreds of millions of dollars every year upgrading the system. Replacing old cable, replacing old transformers. We've always, always done that.
But Con Ed Spokesman Michael Clendenin says the power company didn't actually look for stray voltage until Lane was killed.
CLENDENIN: What we learned from tragedy that happened last year is that we've done a good job delivering a lot of electricity to New Yorkers very safely for many, many years but we need to do it better and we will.
Late last year, the state's Public Service Commission issued new regulations for power companies. They're now required to perform annual tests of all manholes, street lights and other equipment that comes into contact with the public. East Village City Councilwoman Margarita Lopez says these are good first steps. But -
LOPEZ: It's no question to me that the Jodie Lane tragedy had to do with cuts in maintenance and reductions in personnel in the maintenance of the infrastructure that they had. It's clear to me.
The electrical workers union has also complained. Two workers were killed last June during a manhole explosion in Yonkers. Con Ed was fined 35 thousand dollars by the federal department of labor, which cited improper safety training. And stray voltage is still a problem. Two dogs were injured in Chelsea at the end of December.
Con Edison says it's been retraining its workers. It's also planning to spend 20 million dollars annually on testing and inspections of manhole covers, service boxes and street lights. But even with extra vigilance, there are still potential hazards.
Throughout the city, there are streetlights with open panels – evidence of electrical poaching, usually by street fairs. Gunnar Hellekson of the Jodie Lane Project points to one light on East 9th street and Avenue A.
HELLEKSON: Wires are spliced together and probably not insulated properly. In any case, here we have an extension cord with little household plugs at the end and those plugs are not insulated and should it get wet which it can, door is ajar, it can get water logged and electricity can run through and electrify the entire street lamp.
And, presumably, anyone who touches it. Street lights are owned by the city’s department of transportation. A spokesman says its workers are bolting street lights closed with strong new panels.
Jodie Lane’s family settled their lawsuit with Con Edison for 7 point 2 million dollars last year. The settlement includes a scholarship in her name at Columbia University’s Teachers College. And Lane's father, Roger, says a panel of experts will be appointed to oversee the progress Con Ed is making now that it’s testing equipment.
LANE: They found 1400 stray voltages when they evaluated what presumably was all the infrastructure that’s accessible by the public. And that was both street lamps and manhole covers. That was 1400 opportunities for injury or death. And the object will be to drive that toward zero.
Lane lives in Austin, Texas and says he's doing all he can now to make New York and other cities safer. But he knows the dangers are always out there.
LANE: I can tell you that whenever I walk, whether it be in NYC or my town or when I travel to other cities, I will never again walk on a metal piece of infrastructure, never.
The panel that's overseeing Con Edison will meet for the first time later this winter. A report is expected next year. For WNYC I'm Beth Fertig.