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City Council grills Con Ed execs on responsibility for pipe blast

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The City Council public hearing where the utility executives testified was replete with complaints from some Council members over what they saw as a pattern of Con Ed shortcomings as well as a casual attitude. Some lawmakers expressed outrage at the utility's request for a nearly 19 percent rate hike. Several Council members did praise Con Ed officials for providing more facts and explanations than at a previous hearing into the blast. Con Ed said it had already replaced all 1,654 steam pipes in the city as part of a widespread "action plan" in reaction to what the utility termed "a steam incident" July 18 at Lexington Avenue and 41st Street. "We are committed to operating the steam system in a safe and reliable manner," said William Longhi, senior vice president of central operations for Con Ed. "We are also committed to applying what we've learned to enhance the safety of our equipment in a complicated underground environment." Several Council members, including Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan), Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), LeRoy Comrie (D-Laurelton) and John Liu (D-Flushing) expressed everything from dissatisfaction to anger. Quinn hammered away in what turned out to be a vain attempt to get Longhi to take responsibility for the steam pipe blast."Whose fault was this explosion?"asked Quinn. "Was it God's? Was it yours? Was it the fault of the city? I am only trying to get some accountability." Longhi said the utility was facing "hundreds of legal claims" and thus he could not comment"On my way here this morning I drove by the ice cream store that was ruined by the Con Ed power blackout that we endured in Queens for nine days." Vallone said. "The ice cream store never reopened and we are still waiting for answers on the disaster in Queens." Liu suggested that the new measures designed to make the Con Ed steam system safer would ultimately be paid for by the public in form of higher bills. Paul Bruck and Tom Esselman of ABS Consulting, one of two companies hired by Con Ed to investigate the blast, testified that the steam pipe rupture was caused by a "bubble collapse water hammer that generated a momentary force against the pipe that was more than seven times greater than normal." They said an investigation revealed the capacity of the pipe's two steam traps was affected by epoxy materials injected by an outside contractor who had sealed a leaking joint months earlier. Some of materials appeared to have ultimately entered the steam system and hampered the operation.The experts also said flooding following rain hours earlier was also a factor in the blast. "Like the disastrous blackout in my borough of Queens two years ago, Con Edison continues to find ways to disappoint our city and occasionally, with disastrous consequences," said Comrie, chairman of the Council Consumer Relations Committee. "Many of my neighbors in Queens, like New Yorkers across this city, struggle to pay their bills in the throes of an economic recession and I am disturbed that this monopoly, in placing the fiscal concerns of their shareholders over the safety and needs of their customers, is seeking to raise rates and salaries while only now raising safety inspection standards."Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 136.

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