Maura In The News

NStar spars with city on electric shocks
By Mac Daniel, Globe Staff, 3/9/2004

In full-page newspaper ads and testimony before the City Council yesterday, NStar officials denied responsibility for recent incidents in which dogs and pedestrians were shocked by electrical current on Boston streets and sidewalks.

Boston officials, meanwhile, countered by accusing NStar yesterday of violating state law by not maintaining and properly overseeing underground wires blamed for electrical current on city streets and sidewalks.

At yesterday's hearing, utility officials said the electric shocks, which killed one dog and injured three others, were not NStar's fault. Instead, they blamed the problem on damage inflicted by "other companies and organizations" that were working on city streets.

"You're coming in and telling us that all of this is the result of some hellbent contractors?" asked Councilor Michael P. Ross, his voice showing frustration.

"No NStar crew had any involvement in any of the 14 incidents mentioned today," said Phil Andreaus, vice president of NStar's electric division. The exchanges between city and utility officials were preceded by often wrenching tales told by dog owners, some of whose pets were killed or injured by electrical current on Boston streets. Some of the dogs attended as well, including Crumb, a Hungarian Viszla who was shocked last week on a Chinatown street. At one point, the 15-month-old dog put its front paws on a concrete divider, standing directly behind three NStar executives as they testified."Checking 30,000 manhole covers without going any further just doesn't cut it," said Inspectional Services Commissioner Kevin Joyce, citing state law. "It's strict liability. It's their responsibility, and we believe they need to step forward and take responsibility for that system." Utility officials said that the company has checked 950 manhole covers since last week and found that 10 had stray electric current. They blamed the problem on wiring in nearby city street lights, which the city took over from NStar last year.

NStar officials said that while the utility is responsibile for subterranean power lines, its responsibility ends at the underground conduits, from which wires run to street lights and some buildings. City officials, however, said that those wires are part of the utility's infrastructure and that state law places responsibility on utilities for maintaining the wiring.

Last week, the utility promised to check 30,000 manhole covers for stray electrical current, while helping to craft stricter legislation for contractors who damage electrical lines.

Many dog owners said their pets grew more lethargic and scared after being shocked. All who testified, representing 13 incidents in Boston and one in Medford since 2000, said their initial calls were not taken seriously, with NStar taking as much as 14 hours to respond. The hearing was called by Councilor at Large Maura Hennigan after the death in Charlestown last month of Oscar, a 6-year-old Labrador retriever. At the time, city officials blamed the death on an underground power line that had been cut.

NStar officials said then they were never notified about the cut line, blaming the contractor who did the work.

"This really isn't about who is to blame," Hennigan said. "Its about figuring out the problem so no one gets hurt in the future, because this is a very dangerous issue." The City Council's Committee on Public Utilities and Cable Communications plans to hold another hearing on the subject in two weeks.

Michael Monahan, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103, sharply criticized NStar for failing to hire licensed electricians to do its maintenance work.

"To put it clearly, the City of Boston is in the midst of a very real and serious public safety crisis, all due to substandard work and maintenance policies performed and not performed by NStar," he said.

NStar officials countered by saying that its workers are fully trained and that few if any utilities nationwide require all line workers to be licensed electricians.

The city and NStar have been at odds over several issues in recent years, including the building of a new high-power line through the city and the rebuilding of several deteriorating electric substations. After the latest incident, in which a dog was shocked last week, Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he would press for legislation to establish fines of up to $1 million for utilities in such cases. The mayor also planned to ask Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly to help hold NStar and the state agency that regulates it accountable.

At the same time, a draft report by Boston's Inspectional Services Division cited state law in finding NStar responsible for the series of electric shocks.

Many dog owners testified yesterday that their animals changed after being shocked. An owner said the seeing-eye-dog she was training had to return to school. And the co-owner of Crumb noticed a change, as well. "She's so low-key and mellow," testified Pat Folz. "But mellow, when it's not part of your personality, is a problem." Others testified about dogs being shocked on Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority train platforms. MBTA officials said they would look into the problem.

Among the most emotional testimony came from Monica Ponce de Leon, whose dog, Laszlo, died in a 2000 incident. She said many of the same questions were asked at a hearing in City Council chambers four years ago.

In a February 2000 interview about the incident that killed Laszlo, Joyce cautioned dog owners not to panic. "For the most part, the wires under the street are pretty well maintained," he said. "This seems to me to be an isolated incident."

Yesterday, Ponce de Leon said: "I was given a personal promise that this would never happen again. I cannot tell you what losing my dog that way has done to me."

? Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

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