A reckoning after the shock
Menino vows action as 4th dog affected
By Mac Daniel, Globe Staff, 3/4/2004
A Hungarian Vizsla named Crumb walked out of a veterinary hospital with a singed paw yesterday after she became the fourth dog in Boston electrically shocked by exposed underground wires in the past four months. Across town, Mayor Thomas M. Menino vowed to press for legislation to fine utilities up to $1 million in such cases, and he asked Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly to help hold NStar and the state agency that regulates utilities accountable.
Meanwhile a draft report by Boston's Inspectional Services Division found NStar responsible for the spate of electric shocks, some of them not previously reported. The report, prompted by the death of a yellow Labrador retriever in Charlestown last month, also found that a seeing-eye dog was shocked Feb. 10 on Washington Street.
"NStar continually pledges commitments, and they don't follow through," Menino said yesterday. "Now again, there's a crisis and they react. There's a lack of oversight and preventive maintenance by NStar. Dogs are precious to individuals. What if next time it's a person? What happens if that was a child?"
NStar said the zapping of Crumb in Chinatown on Tuesday night resulted from damage to an NStar line by another utility. The power company called an afternoon news conference to announce plans to inspect some 30,000 manholes citywide.
"We want this problem to be fixed as much as anyone," said NStar spokeswoman Christina McKenna. "But this last incident was an egregious violation. We were never notified of this [damage], and there was obviously no intention of notifying us or making the situation safe. Literally, the whole thing was covered up."
The draft report, however, found that the incidents are "directly related to the failure of NStar to adequately require the insulation and integrity of electrical equipment, wires, conduits, and connection." The report also blamed NStar for a lack of line maintenance, asserting that the utility's failure to remove abandoned underground cable caused the death of Oscar, the Charlestown dog.
"This apparent disregard of legal requirements, combined with the apparent lack of any affirmative ongoing maintenance plan, left unresolved, could result in the injury or death to people traveling the public way in Boston," the report says.
Pledges of swift action abounded yesterday.
Paul G. Afonzo, chairman of the Department of Telecommunications and Energy, said: "I welcome the AG and the mayor's suggestions here. . . . We're prepared to listen to the entire argument, but we're going to hold people accountable."
Alice Moore, chief of the attorney general's public protection bureau, said four years of requests to DTE to hold NStar and other utilities accountable for service quality standards have not been met. DTE fined NStar $3.25 million in 2001 for a series of blackouts in the Boston area, but Moore said her office had asked for a $22 million fine.
"People shouldn't be concerned about walking down the streets with dogs and kids and hitting electrical lines," Moore said. "These issues highlight the need for attention to the safety of our electrical systems."
Utility officials acknowledged they do no regular inspections of contractor repairs or routinely search for stray electricity. The causes of electrified manholes and sidewalks vary, but water and salt are largely blamed for the erosion of insulation around power lines. Water then allows the electricity to be conducted to the surface. In many of the incidents, including Tuesday's, dogs get shocked as they stand in water on or near a manhole.
Werner Schweiger, NStar's vice president of electric and gas operations, recommended stiffer penalties against anyone who fails to report damage caused to underground electric cables.
The Chinatown incident has sparked concern citywide over live wires underground, especially after the death of Oscar, the Labrador that was killed in Charlestown.
NStar blamed that incident on contractors who tore down a nearby building without notifying NStar to shut off a line. "We have no indication at all that this is a larger problem," McKenna said Feb. 4.
However, NStar was made aware of a similar incident on Dec. 8 when a Mission Hill man and his dog were shocked by an electrified manhole while on a walk.
The owner of the dog, John Toner, told his lawyer, Tom Healy, that his dog Blue began yelping after stepping on a manhole cover in the middle of Delle Avenue. When Toner grabbed Blue, a shock knocked him off his feet and caused him to lose strength in one arm, Healy said.
Healy wrote NStar a letter Dec. 18 about the incident and received acknowledgment that it was received.
Concern over "zap zones" peaked in January after a 30-year-old woman was electrocuted in New York City as she walked her dogs and fell on the electrified lid of a service box.
New York State officials have accused Consolidated Edision of failing to listen to previous warnings about stray electrical current and of not spending enough money to maintain and inspect its aging system of underground wires.
Councilor at Large Maura Hennigan has called a hearing Monday on the incidents.
"I think it is everybody's responsibility," Hennigan said, "but I think it's the responsibility of the city to set up a process where there is accountability."
She plans to call on city officials to create an oversight process for all utility work in the city. She also is going to suggest a hot line for people to report exposed wires.
Meanwhile, Dr. Courtney Peck, the veterinarian who treated Crumb and Blue, encouraged dog walkers to walk around puddles and any metal in their path. "Obviously, stay away from manholes," she said. "You just never know."
Crumb's owner, Nora Hayes, 34, said she had not heard from NStar or senior city officials by late yesterday afternoon. "This incident isn't so much about myself and Crumb, but about a serious safety hazard that the city of Boston is facing," Hayes said.
"They already have canine blood on their hands. This is a call to action to Menino to get NStar to find out what is going on."
Globe correspondent Jessica Bennett contributed to this report.
? Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.