Maura In The News

On 'hot spots,' NStar on hot seat
After dog dies, more cases eyed

By David Abel, Globe Staff, 2/22/2004

Is it safe to walk across an empty city street?

For some city residents, especially since a 115-pound dog named Oscar suddenly collapsed in the middle of a rain-soaked street in Charlestown, this is no mere rhetorical question.

More residents have come forward to say they have experienced the kind of electric shock, or "stray voltage," as NStar calls it, that the electric company blames for seeping through old wires below the pavement, traveling through the wet, salt-covered ground, and zapping the 6-year-old Labrador retriever with enough juice that neighbors who touched him felt small jolts. They note Oscar wasn't the first dog to die of electrocution in Boston and insist such "hot spots" of wayward current exist throughout the area. They also worry the electricity packs enough power to kill a person.

City Councilor Maura Hennigan is worried enough that she called last week for a hearing with NStar and the city's Inspectional Services Department, and urged a search for other possible hot spots.

John Toner found one such spot.

While walking his dog after a snowstorm this past December, the Mission Hill resident survived a similarly shocking experience -- one that left him with a pile of medical records and thousands of dollars in health-care bills. Toner has retained a lawyer and is considering suing NStar.

On Dec. 8, Toner said, he was walking his 60-pound German shepherd mix, Blue, in front of his house on Delle Avenue, when the dog suddenly froze. He wailed and collapsed. The force of the dog's fall pulled Toner down on the same spot where Blue dropped, the top of a manhole cover. That's when he felt the shock.

Afterward, records show, Toner brought Blue to Angell Memorial Animal Hospital, and then checked himself into Brigham and Women's Hospital, where doctors kept him overnight for observation, he said. Both he and Blue recovered, but Toner said he spent about $6,000 on treatment, and now, after Oscar's well-publicized death and NStar's admission that stray electricity probably killed the dog, Toner is furious no one listened to his earlier complaints.

"They can't feign ignorance about this," said Toner, who recently received an e-mail from NStar explaining the source of the stray voltage in the incident involving Blue: punctured wires from an old street light removed years ago.

If it seems surprising that a dog -- or a person, as occurred in New York City this winter when a woman stepped on a manhole cover -- could die or suffer an injury merely by crossing an empty street, electrical engineers say it can happen in any urban area, especially during winter, when the combination of slush and salt provide an excellent conduit for ungrounded electricity.

And it doesn't take much to do serious damage. "Between 80 and 100 volts would be enough for a lethal dose," said Jim Kirtley Jr., a professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's uncommon, but not an unheard of phenomenon."

After Jodie Lane, 30, died from stepping on an electrified manhole cover last month in New York, the electric company Con Edison found 110 hot spots throughout the city, 30 of which carried charges of more than 50 volts.

It's unknown how many exist in Boston, though one local electrical contractor, Ed Deely, Jr., author of the Web site mrvolts.com, believes the city may be among the most dangerous urban areas in the country. Aside from its many old, rotting wires, Boston's underground electrical system is often serviced by so-called utility or line workers, he said, instead of licensed electricians.

"The major electrical companies employ people who aren't qualified to be doing the work," said Deely, who said he filed a complaint with the State Board of Electrical Licensure against NStar, alleging its practice of using unlicensed personnel puts the public at risk.

NStar officials acknowledge that most of their line workers are not licensed electricians. "The line workers are not required to be licensed," McKenna said. "But safety is our highest priority. No one takes electrical safety more seriously than NStar." They also say they've received only a few complaints about other hot spots. After finally finding the stray voltage on Delle Avenue, they blamed a city sewer crew for nicking a cable.

"Stray voltage is very unusual," said Christina McKenna, a spokeswoman for NStar.

Lisa Timberlake, a spokeswoman for Boston Inspectional Services Department, said: "We're not concerned this is a larger problem."

But city officials know of at least one previous death here. In February 2000, a 65-pound red vizsla died when his owner walked him over an electrified manhole at Shawmut Avenue and West Newton Street in the South End, Inspectional Services found.

Other victims allegedly include seeing-eye dogs.

During a 10-day training period this month with her new guide dog, Alice Dampman walked the 68-pound Labrador retriever all over the city. The dog, Danny, received at least two serious shocks -- so strong that the sweet, well-trained dog became "a basket case" and she had to return him and find another dog, she said.

Another blind woman, Sharon Tiner of Brookline, said her 92-pound seeing-eye dog suffered muscle as well as psychological damage Jan. 29, when a shock he received near her home jolted the 5-year-old Labrador retriever with such force he broke loose from her and then started to shiver uncontrollably.

"It nearly frightened the life out of me," said Tiner, 49.

Their dogs were lucky; they survived. A year ago, on a snowy February day, Julie Daniele, a 34-year-old attorney, was walking home to South Boston when her young 55-pound weimaraner let out a loud yelp. The dog, Fenway, died soon after, the result, according to an investigation by the Massachusetts Highway Department, of improperly grounded electricity beneath the bridge by L Street, she said.

For the past year, Daniele, who works for the state, sought to raise awareness about the danger of hotspots. But like John Toner and others, she feels no one took her complaints seriously, and she, too, is now considering legal action.

"The next time, it's going to be a child," she said. "That's what I want to stop."

David Abel can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

? Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

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