Con Ed evacuation policy under fire

May 13, 2009 8:47:37 PM PDT
For gas leaks detected inside a building, Con Ed has one of the strictest policies in the nation. Just a half-a-percent of gas measured inside, Con Ed will evacuate. For outside leaks, there's no mandatory evacuation. Not even when the levels of gas are potentially deadly.

Nearly an hour before a gas leak sparked an explosion killing Ghanwatti Boodram, a mother of three, last month in Queens, a Con Ed inspector had measured hazardous concentrations of gas. Since those readings were in manholes outside and not from inside a home, no evacuation was required.

In fact, nowhere in Con Ed's 23-page of procedures for gas leaks does it call for evacuation for outside leaks. Not even for "type one leaks" considered the most "hazardous" requiring "immediate and continuous action to protect life or property." "There's no Teflon shield between gas outside and gas inside," former PSC Commissioner Karen Burstein said.

The former member of the public service commission says Con Ed's evacuation procedure is seriously flawed.

"You can't ignore the outside concentrations. You have to include them. You have to set a standard and then you got to get people out of there," Burstein said.

You would have thought Con Ed and the Public Service Commission would have learned that lesson 17 months ago.

That's when another hazardous outside gas leak from a Con Ed manhole exploded destroying another home in Queens and killing Kunta Ora.

The Public Service Commission report on the incident showed that dangerous "gas readings ranging from 20 to 90 percent had been found in "5 outside locations" near the home 30 minutes before it exploded. Yet, no change in policy has been made. Gas concentrations outside can be off the chart and no evacuation is required. We asked the head of Con Ed's gas division why?

Jim Hoffer: Some say that was the time the evacuation procedure should have changed?
David Davidowitz/Con Ed: I think it will.
Hoffer: Why didn't it change then?
Davidowitz: Because a fellow must determine the extent of migration?. His priority is to find out where it's coming from, determine the extent of the hazard and make that safe."

"There appears to be a complete absence of policy in what to do to preserve the safety of people in their homes when a large gas leak is identified out in the street," State Assemblyman Michael Gianaris said.

Gianaris is among the lawmakers who sent a letter to Con Ed after the explosion demanding action. You can read that letter here.

In last month's fatal explosion, a Con Ed worker detected high concentrations of gas in 8 outside locations -- a clear indication of a potentially deadly leak, but still no evacuation.

Hoffer: There is no procedure in your 23-page manual that calls for outside evacuation?
Davidowitz: And I think that needs changing.
Hoffer: You say it's going to change, but how?
Davidowitz: Let's take this case. We got greater than 4 percent -- a lot more than 4 percent in a manhole in front of a building. We are going to find which building is fed by that manhole and go right to that building.
Hoffer: Will part of the improvement include when a certain percentage of gas is measured outside it would trigger an evacuation?
Davidowitz: Yeah, probably.

Too late for a Queens man left to raise his three sons alone.

"How many more must die before we see changes?" Dindial Boodram wondered at a recent public meeting.

Con Ed says it responds to 30-thousand gas leaks a year. It is promising changes that will get more manpower to the scene more quickly in addition to an evacuation policy.


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