A steamy story from the streets of New York City

PEL830 A steamy story from the streets of New York City

There’s been yet another catastrophic explosion resulting from damaged underground infrastructure. This time errant excavators failing to get accurate information on its location were not to blame. But the incident does highlight another, and perhaps lesser known, hazard that services such as Dial Before You Dig help to prevent.

The incident occurred in the heart of New York City, on Fifth Avenue when an underground steam pipe exploded.

Why, you may ask, are there steam pipes running under New York’s streets? They provide steam to commercial customers in what is the world’s most extensive network of steam pipes that has been operating since the late 1800s.

At its peak in the 1920s and 1930s, there were more than 100,000 commercial and residential buildings on the network. Today the network, operated by Con Edison, runs for more than 100 miles and delivers steam to nearly 2,000 buildings including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Empire State Building, and the United Nations headquarters.

Con Edison has five power plants producing the steam for the network and vice president of steam operations at Con Edison told the New York Times in 2014: “Had it not been for the steam system, the postcard skyline that you see of Manhattan would be totally different. You’d be looking at every one of these high-rises with some type of chimney coming out of it.” The New York Times has a six-minute video about the system.

But back to that explosion. It was pretty bad. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, but, as the NYT reported, the explosion “showered the Flatiron district with asbestos-filled muck, forcing the evacuation of many office buildings.”

Police blocked traffic from entering a zone that stretched from West 19th Street to West 23rd Street between Broadway and Avenue of the Americas.

Con Edison advised people who were within a block or so of the blast site at Fifth Avenue and 21st Street to bag their clothes they were wearing and deliver them to the company for disposal, the NYT reported.

The outsides of the buildings were washed down, filters in air-conditioning units changed. In all, some 400 businesses were affected. Five days later many residents and workers were still barred from returning.

And it’s not the first time this has happened. Back in 1989, a steam pipe in Gramercy Park bust, sending an estimated 80kg of asbestos into the air, NBC reported. Decontaminating nearby buildings took a month. And Con Edison pleaded guilty to conspiracy after being charged with misleading the public: it failed to disclose, initially, that the pipe had been coated with asbestos insulation.

Wikipedia has details of that explosion and of a similar explosion in 2007, and says there have been a dozen such explosions since 1987.

There has been no indication given of the total cost of remediation but you can bet it will run into millions. According to Wikipedia remediation of the 1989 explosion cost $US90 million – inflation would make that figure much higher today - “making this one of the most expensive asbestos cleanup projects in history.”

So woe betides any excavator in New York that hits one of these pipes.

Infrastructure protection news brought to you by PelicanCorp

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