In a letter to the Chair of the Public Service Commission and the head of Consolidated Edison, Assembly Energy Committee Chair Kevin Cahill joined with lawmakers from Queens calling for a comprehensive investigation into the events and circumstances surrounding Friday's natural gas explosion in Floral Park. The incident tragically claimed the life of a mother of three and injured six others.
The letter, referencing a similar incident that occurred in 2007, demanded a full accounting of Consolidated Edison's protocol and proceedings for emergency situations such as these. The Assemblymembers called upon Consolidated Edison and the Public Service Commission to examine and re-evaluate the gas emergency policies and protocols, coordinate with state and local public safety officials to develop best practices and to hold public hearings.
Assemblymember Cahill said, "The occurrence of an incident of this nature once is tragic, that it has repeatedly occurred is cause for grave concern. New York State has an inherent obligation to assure that the responsible parties be held directly accountable for the safety of their customers and the public. We need to take a comprehensive look at exactly what transpired so we can identify the appropriate measures to ensure it simply does not happen again."
"When three children lose their mother it is a tragedy, and Con Edison must take every precaution to ensure that it never happens again," said Assemblymember Mark Weprin.
Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, who is a leading advocate for the reform of Con Edison and led an Assembly Task Force dedicated to instilling greater accountability at the utility after the massive 2006 Queens blackout, stated, "Con Edison continues to put our safety at risk with substandard maintenance and inadequate emergency response. Unless significant reforms are instituted as soon as possible, New Yorkers can expect another summer of power outages, explosions and electrocutions."
"How did an explosion like this happen for a second time in Queens? The people of Queens deserve an explanation for this incident. We are also calling for a complete examination of the protocols that are currently used when there is a suspected natural gas leak," said Assemblywomen Catherine Nolan.
"In light of this past week's tragedy it is more vital than ever to make sure that we have in place procedures and protocol to ensure the prevention of future accidents," stated Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer.
Assemblymember Michael DenDekker, formerly of the New York City Office of Emergency Management, raised concern about the timeline of events. "I don't know why Con Ed did not immediately evacuate the surrounding area as a precaution after the confirmation of a gas leak by the responding Con Edison inspector some 45 minutes before the explosion. Con Ed needs to re-examine its standard operating procures for positive detections of gas leaks in residential neighborhoods"
Assemblywoman Barbara Clark said, "It is disturbing to know that two years after the tragic gas incident in Sunnyside, Queens, Con Edison has not taken a more proactive approach to preventing a similar catastrophe as what took place in Floral Park."
Assemblymember Rory Lancman said, "Public safety should be priority one for any responsible utility company, but too often at Con Ed it seems to be the last thing on their mind. At what point is the leadership of Con Ed going to be held accountable?"
Assemblyman Jose Peralta stated, "There was more than one complaint, a crew from Con Ed confirmed the leak, yet none of them had the sense to warn residents to vacate their homes? When lives are in danger, common sense has to reign supreme!"
The lawmakers are expecting a prompt response from the Public Service Commission and Consolidated Edison. The Assembly Energy Committee is considering holding hearings on the matter. The text of the letter is included below.
April 27, 2009
Garry A. Brown, Commissioner
New York State Public Service Commission
Agency Building 3
Albany, NY 12223-1350
Chairman, President, and CEO
Consolidated Edison, Inc.
4 Irving Place, 16th Floor New York, NY 10003
Dear Commissioner Brown and Chairman Burke:
On Friday, April 24, 2009, the community of Floral Park in Queens, New York was rocked by a powerful natural gas explosion which tragically claimed the life of a mother of three and a valued member of the community. Additionally, at least six other individuals sustained injuries severe enough to require hospital treatment.
The initial timeline that has been widely reported is as follows:
3:34 P.M.: A neighbor called Consolidated Edison to report a suspicious of a gas smell;
3:56 P.M.: The first available Consolidated Edison inspector was summoned;
4:05 P.M.: Consolidated Edison inspector arrived; confirmed the gas smell outside the caller's homes, but not inside; outside the inspector took readings near several manhole covers and found gas levels at 20%, an indication of a gas leak. He could not lift the manhole covers himself to do further testing and called for back-up.
4:15 P.M.: The Consolidated Edison inspector called for back-up from two other inspectors working seven miles away;
4:45 P.M.: The back-up inspectors arrived, lifted the manhole covers, found gas levels at 80%, and began to organize to check nearby building and notify neighbors; and, finally
4:50 P.M.: The explosion occurred at 80-50 260th Street, taking the life of Ghanwatti Boobram.
It is important to note that this is not the first time that a natural gas explosion of this nature has occurred in Consolidated Edison's service territory. A similar explosion occurred in Sunnyside, Queens, in November 2007, in which a 69 year old woman lost her life. Changes were purportedly made to response protocols in the event of a natural gas leak.
However, over the weekend several news outlets reported that a Consolidated Edison spokesman noted that "there was no protocol,... adding that dangerous gas levels weren't detected in the home of the person who first called the utility Friday. Which house would you evacuate first?" This very statement indicates that there is a serious gap in the emergency planning and implementation process, which needs to be addressed by appropriate regulatory officials.
This situation demands a full investigation of the explosion and the response to the emergency call. Therefore, we, the undersigned Members of the New York State Assembly, formally request that the Public Service Commission and Consolidated Edison:
Initiate a full investigation of the natural gas explosion on April 24, 2009, including why the block was not evacuated earlier, when the initial readings at 4:15 indicated a dramatically high gas level (the reading revealed a 20 percent level, well above the threshold that would trigger a gas emergency), thus preventing the loss of life;
Hold public hearings that seek comment from responders, state and local officials and the public on the appropriateness of existing response protocols;
Review and report on the protocols that should be followed in the event of a suspected natural gas leak, including full disclosure of existing policies, practices, training and defined protocols regarding reports and investigation of gas emergencies and how these policies compare to those of other similar jurisdictions and localities;
Complete a detailed report on how and why the protocols were or were not followed in this instance, including whether appropriate training was completed by all responders;
In consultation with state and local public safety officials, make recommendations to improve response protocols in the event of a suspected gas leak in the Consolidated Edison service territory, but also by any utility state-wide that distributes natural gas to its customers; and,
Make the results of this investigation widely available to the public as quickly as is practical.
Consolidated Edison is responsible for 7,200 miles of mains and service pipes for gas delivery to over 1.1 million ratepayers. A single incident of this nature is unfortunate. That this is not the only such instance is cause for grave concern. New York State has an inherent interest in assuring that the responsible parties be held directly accountable for the safety of their customers and the public. We look forward to your full cooperation in this matter and your immediate response.
Members of Assembly:
Kevin A. Cahill
Michael N. Gianaris
Catherine T. Nolan
Rory I. Lancman
Jeffrion L. Aubry
Audrey I. Pheffer
Michelle R. Titus
Margaret M. Markey
Jose R. Peralta
Vivian E. Cook
Barbara M. Clark