Maura In The News

After mishap, NStar is urged to hunt down any hot spots
By Kevin Joy, Globe Correspondent, 2/19/2004

Two weeks after an underground electrical current killed a 115-pound yellow Labrador on a Charlestown street corner, a city councilor is demanding that utility officials scour the city for any more hot spots that might be lurking beneath Boston streets.

"This was a sidewalk that became electrified; it's horrifying beyond belief," said Councilor at Large Maura A. Hennigan, who has asked for a hearing with officials from NStar and the city's Inspectional Services Department.

"It could have been a child that was killed," she said. "It could have been anybody."

Hennigan said she was alarmed by the details of the death of the dog, which collapsed yelping and writhing on a Charlestown corner that an NStar trouble-shooter at the scene called a hot spot alive with 100 volts of electricity.

NStar officials have said the likely source was an old underground electrical service line to a now-demolished house.

They said injury from stray electrical currents is rare, though the NStar trouble shooter had earlier acknowledged that hot spots are not uncommon in the winter, when the ground is often soaked with water and road salt that could conduct electricity. Salt has also been known to eat through wiring and allow current to electrify nearby metal fixtures.

NStar spokeswoman Christina McKenna said the company is working to track down the property's former owners to find out why electrical service was never canceled at the site.

The company also plans to keep closer tabs on reports of stray voltage, making them the highest service priority, and to require underground workers to do routine voltage checks. But she said the company sees no need to search for other potential problem spots around the city.

"NStar has an outstanding safety record," McKenna said.

The most recent incident isn't the first in Boston. In February 2000, a 65-pound dog was electrocuted in the South End when his owner walked him over a city-maintained manhole cover at the corner of Shawmut Avenue and West Newton Street. A similar circumstance killed a dog in Chicago.

"This is something that goes well beyond an anomaly or a statistical occurrence," said Councilor Michael P. Ross, who is chairman of the City Council's Public Utilities and Cable Communications Committee.

"To have a dog or person shocked every couple of years is unacceptable," Ross said. "People need to feel comfortable that they can walk out their front door -- whether it's raining, snowing, or the sun is shining -- and not worry about a mysterious shock from below."

Ross, whose committee is processing Hennigan's proposal, is backing her call for a hearing with NStar officials.

In New York City last month, Jodie Lane, 30, was electrocuted when one of the two dogs she was walking stepped on the metal cover of a utility box in the East Village. New York's electric company, Con Edison, acknowleged last month that a partially exposed wire inside the box wasn't properly insulated, electrifying the utility box. The problem, they said, could have been solved with a few dollars worth of electrical tape. "We're taking responsibility for it," Con Edison spokesman Chris Olert told the Globe last week. "We have learned a lot of lessons from this tragedy and are making a real, concerted company effort to improve our monitoring systems."

Con Edison began checking the rest of the city the day after Lane's death on Jan. 16, checking some 260,000 manhole covers, service box covers, and transformers. So far, they have identified 128 instances of "stray voltage," Olert said.

While NStar immediately shut off the abandoned service line, McKenna said the deaths of Lane in New York and the Labrador retriever in Charlestown were the result of two different scenarios.

"Con Edison traced their problem to workmanship; ours is not a workmanship issue," McKenna said. "The circumstances in Charlestown were extremely unusual. We're doing everything we can to identify opportunities to make our system even better."

Still, Hennigan said a hearing to swap ideas between city and private agencies could be a valuable chance to address the issue collectively. "I want to make sure we can assure the public that our streets and sidewalks are safe," Hennigan said. "If it is a systemic issue, we have to know what could be a problem. And if there is one, how we are going to address it."

Kevin Joy can be reached at [email protected]

? Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.


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