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NTSB: Con Edison, NYC both liable for deadly East Harlem explosion

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HARLEM — An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board has found that Consolidated Edison and New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection were both responsible for conditions that led to last year’s gas line explosion in East Harlem.

The blast destroyed two buildings, killed eight people and injured dozens.

Both Con Edison and the city deny complete culpability.

The NTSB found that Con Edison failed when they installed a defective fusion joint in 2011, which allowed gas to leak from the main and into a building near Park Avenue and 116th Street, where it ignited.

Investigators also found that the utility did not call the fire department right away, when a call came in about the gas leak. If they had, the board concluded, firefighters could have been on site and begun evacuations 15 minutes before the blast.

The board also found that the city failed to repair a sewer line that had been broken since 2006, which eroded the soil beneath the gas line. This loss of support caused the line to sag and stressed the defective pipe joint.

The city contends that the damaged sewer had no causal connection to the explosion, stating: “Put simply, the full investigation reveals that a properly fused fusion joint would not have failed.”

While Con Edison, states the opposite, alleging that the sewer breach caused years of undermining, which led to a crack in the gas pipe fitting, resulting in the explosion. Con Edison filed a lawsuit against the city last week.

Victims rocked by the March 2014 blast are still recovering.

“When this explosion happened, it drastically changed his life,” said East Harlem resident, Eileen Lapuma. She’s speaking about her 7-year old son, Alexander, “He’s now a scared little boy, who is afraid and doesn't want to be without me most of the time.”

Lapuma is one of dozens of plaintiffs suing Con Edison and the city. She says she hopes to gain truth and justice.

“I just need to know that there is a silver lining to everything we went through.”

The NTSB recommended six changes be made to prevent this from happening again, most were directed at Con Edison.

Regulators advised the utility to implement new guidelines and provide training on how to properly notify the New York City Fire Department in an emergency. At the NTSB hearing on Tuesday afternoon, board members debated whether firefighters being there earlier would have saved or cost more lives.

The board also recommended that Con Edison give priority to pipelines in more densely populated areas, that the utility should clean gas lines before fusing them together, and the weld should be physically examined to ensure each bead in the joint is secure. Board members also recommended that New York State ensure regulations are audited for the next five years.

The NTSB made only one recommendation for New York City, recommending a written program or procedures to repair sewer breaches in a timely manner, and to communicate potential voids to other agencies.

The board also put forward that Con Edison should implement a better public awareness program, in multiple languages.

“I think the way to pay tribute is to make sure that that message gets out there that when you smell gas, act fast,” said board member Robert Sumwalt.

Con Edison says it is already acting faster, to replace gas mains and better address sagging sewers or streets. The utility also says it has strengthened internal practices to ensure workers are qualified, and inspections and patrols are conducted more frequently.

The city says they too have already taken steps to investigate and repair city utilities, creating a new unit to handle the responsibility and investing an additional $300 million into upgrading sewer infrastructure.