June 18, 2014
Testimony of James T. Slevin, President, Local 1-2, NY, Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO
New York City Council Committees on Economic Development, Consumer Affairs and Environmental Protection
Chairmen Garodnick, Richards and Espinal, Thank you for the invitation to testify at this important hearing.
I am James Slevin, President of Local 1-2 of the Utility Workers Union of America. I represent the men and women who operate and maintain New York City’s gas and steam systems for Con Edison.
I thank the Committees for the opportunity to bring to light many of the inadequacies of Con Ed’s woeful practices in the delivery, maintenance and safety of its Gas and Steam Operations which my Members observe every day in the field.
That we meet here in the wake of the tragic East Harlem gas explosion that claimed eight lives, speaks loudly of the failures in oversight that created the conditions leading to this horrific event.
I tell you today that Con Edison’s current practices regarding its gas delivery infrastructure are part and parcel of the East Harlem catastrophe.
It is surprising – and only a function of extremely good luck – that more such events have not yet happened. Unless you get Con Edison to alter its culture and practices, it is only a matter of time before they do. The reason that we do not have more East Harlem tragedies is testament only to the professionalism of my Members going back decades of 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60 years when they did the job, they did it right, and they did it with the safety of the public paramount in their work.
This professionalism was part of the culture of Con Edison in those years. Today that culture is much changed – and I will provide specific examples – and Con Ed is content to coast on the work of the past. Con Ed’s stellar reputation for delivery of energy services only exists today because of what was done in the past when its corporate ethos was to build to last and to have enough of its own workers to make sure the system was maintained and upgraded on a regular basis.
One of these days, if Con Ed does not do more to secure our gas infrastructure, we will view failures like the one in East Harlem as merely the cost of doing business.
Con Edison, as you know, was found criminally liable for the 1989 Gramercy steam explosion that took three lives. More recently there was the 2007 steam explosion on E. 401h St. and Lexington Ave., which resulted in serious injuries.
These are just examples that our steam infrastructure is as vulnerable as our gas mains to degradation and failure because of lack of regular maintenance.
The East Harlem explosion echoes the tragic April 2009 Floral Park, Queens explosion that killed 40-year-old nurse Ghanwatti Boodram. That explosion too was a cascade of poor reaction time by Con Ed and its emergency procedures.
What is troubling is that it seems that a quasi-municipal utility like Con Ed faces less scrutiny than let’s say a private crane operator when there is a loss oflife.
There emerges a pattern that Con Ed pays out a settlement to victims and then returns to business as usual.
Today’s Con Ed culture is sticking a Band-Aid on it and hoping that it holds. All of this is done in the pursuit of profit and shareholder value. If it sounds cynical, it is. Today, Con Edison’s corporate culture revolves very much around its performance on Wall Street. And, as a Dividend Darling – Con Edison has paid dividends for more than 120 years – Con Edison’s sole measuring stick is market value – the public be damned.
Let’s talk about conditions as my Members found them in East Harlem in March of this year. They found a block which over the years had seen many different types of repairs to the gas lines. They knew that the fixes stretched back several decades because the repair records contain notations of what occurred. And it was done in a piecemeal manner.
Thirty years ago and earlier when Con Edison had to make repairs to a gas line on a city block, it would replace the main from corner to comer. This was not the case in East Harlem, nor is it the case today of any gas main repair.
Instead, in the pursuit of cost savings, Con Ed relies on patches. One problem with patches – let us say tying in plastic pipe to a cast iron pipe – is that they are prone to failure at a far greater rate than if a whole block is replaced. Some of the reasons are obvious. Given the massive tangle below ground of electric, gas, telephone, cable, water and sewer lines, any excavation is bound to cause some problems. A l 00 year-old cast iron main – stable for a century – is undermined by the excavation tying it into plastic. The metal at this age fails when disturbed, while plastic is less prone to this kind of failure.
Another thing we learned at East Harlem is that the plastic pipes that Con Edison uses in its gas mains have never been stored properly by the utility. Apparently the type of PVC pipe now used by Con Edison should never be stored outside, never placed directly on the ground, and never be exposed to direct sunlight. These practices degrade the plastic and make it unfit for use. In fact, one of my Local’ s Business Agents saw Public Service Commission personnel reject plastic pipe for this very reason when it was brought up to East Harlem by Con Edison for repairs following the explosion. Yet in yard after yard in New York City and Westchester County, Con Ed just
drops these pipes on the ground for future use, where they lay, exposed to the sun and other elements.
Another area where Con Edison skimps, allegedly in order to save money, to the detriment of its customers is its extensive use of outside contractors. You might say that is all well and good in a private enterprise until you learn that Con Edison has one standard for its own employees and a lax, one might even say negligent, standard for the gas main contractors it uses.
Con Ed uses contractors exclusively to emplace new gas mains or replace mains in large-scale projects. The problem here is training. A Con Ed-employed gas worker must undergo up to two• and-a-half years of training before working directly on the gas system. A contractor? Only one person on the contractor crew replacing the main has to have had training by Con Edison., Our Mechanics cannot be Crew Leader until after they’ve completed their “Mech A” training approximately 2 1/2 years in the Gas Dept. Where as a contractor can do the same after ONLY
18 days TOT AL of training. Then he’s in charge of crews with little or N 0 training. And that training, unlike the training it requires for its own employees, is only 18 days’ worth. That’s right, one person, 18 days of training and they are then allowed to work on your gas main. Con Ed has no knowledge of the training, if any, of the rest of the contractor crew. This lack of training causes these contractors to make mistakes, which Con Ed’s own crews then have to go out and fix or, far worse, can result in disasters.
These are the practices Con Edison uses today and I submit that this relaxation of standards does nothing to protect the public.
These contractor conditions arose because Con Edison has been ruthless in paring its workforce to the bone.
As was found in the investigation into Con Edison’s operation of its electric system following Superstorm Sandy, the lack of trained, qualified in-house personnel hampered restoration efforts and, even up to today, wreckage from Sandy is still worked on by Con Edison. Every day my Members, whether in gas or electric operations, discover shoddy work previously performed by outside contractors that must be re-done.
Certainly, in its zeal to cut costs, Con Edison must recognize that this double work is not really cost effective.
We know that investors like to see a lean workforce and a corporate philosophy of having staff and inventory only when needed. Now this might be a good way to run a company like Walmart or Amazon, but it doesn’t seem like a safe or professional way to manage a publicly regulated utility.
Yet, this is exactly how Con Edison operates. It ran out of poles following Sandy and it was trying to install sub-standard pipe following the East Harlem blast.
And its lean workforce adds to these less than ideal conditions. Con Ed’s Gas Distribution Service – first responders to every gas leak – which is staffed by Local 1-2 has been gutted over time. A decade ago there were 43 Local 1-2 Members in the Rye gas unit, today that number stands at 8. Yet there are 6 supervisors there. To date, Con Edison has received 3,900 more gas leak reports this year than last year. So while Con Ed has cut back on its gas responders, it relies instead on forcing its existing GDS personnel to work 12 to 16 hour days. A work schedule like this cannot be sustained over time and still remain safe for the public or the employee.
I believe this attrition of personnel is a direct threat to public safety. For example, let’s look at
the way in which Con Ed checks for gas leaks. Ten years ago a two man crew with leak detection equipment would drive at slow speed block by block checking for leaks. If they found evidence of a leak, one person would get out to survey the block by foot checking for the leak. If a leak was found, the detection crew would stay with the leak until a repair crew arrived.
Today, with a one man crew checking for leaks, there are no more foot surveys and many minor gas leaks go undetected. As we know, gas, like water, seeks the path of least resistance and being lighter than air can accumulate in unusual places, as long as it has an upward trajectory.
Now I would like to draw your attention to the way in which Con Edison deals with below•
ground gas leaks today as opposed to years ago.
In the past, if there was a below-ground leak, a crew would arrive and repair it right away. Today, as we meet, there are no fewer than 100 leaks around Con Ed’s service territory – perhaps more.
Will these leaks be fixed? Yes they will be fixed. They will be fixed sometime within the next month or so. Meanwhile, Con Ed just vents the gas leak into the atmosphere and puts a cover over it.
So much for rapid repair. While in and of itself, venting a gas leak is not dangerous, allowing it to go unattended for weeks, is. Yes, if gas is detected Con Ed is supposed to check for elevated levels twice each day, to prevent an East Harlem-type event. But I ask you, is this really a best practice for public safety?
In short, Con Edison’s entire gas and steam delivery infrastructure is antiquated and in danger of failure. Con Edison has decided in the course of business that regular maintenance is not necessary and that it can get by with piecemeal repairs.
This philosophy of not-so-benign neglect, rather than vigilant maintenance, is what Con Edison can get away with before the public unless you and the State require it now to do its duty to . operate and maintain this public utility for the benefit of the public. There is a 16-year-old boy still in the hospital, undergoing operation after operation, to try to recover from the neglect which caused the explosion in East Harlem. He has no home to go home to and only half his
family left. For him, for the memories of those he and others lost in East Harlem, for the memories of those lost in the explosions in Queens within the past few years, please make sure that Con Ed returns to the culture which puts the public and its safety first and executive bonuses last.
The manner in which Con Edison, a private, shareholder-owned, publicly regulated utility, is allowed to conduct its operations is antithetical to the realities of the 21st Century. In this century, unlike the 19th Century when Con Edison came into existence, heat and light are a human right. Yet, Con Ed still acts in a 19th century mindset that heat and light are commodities to be sold at market. And it is regulated as if heat and light are still not the right of all citizens.
It might be said that Con Edison has been betraying its public trust for years in its chase for riches.