A decade ago, a steam pipe explosion near Grand Central Terminal killed one person and injured more than 30 others, causing millions of dollars in property damage. The blast occurred close to the intersection of East 41st Street and Lexington Avenue, propelling a geyser of scalding steam mixed with pavement debris skyward, sending rush hour commuters running for cover. Fast forward ten years, and most of the injured have settled their claims with Consolidated Edison (Con Edison), which operates Manhattan’s steam distribution system.
The State Supreme Court in Manhattan will hear another trial this October, brought by numerous claimants who are demanding justice for business losses and personal injury stemming from the explosion. With the trial looming closer, new questions have surfaced about the conduct of both Con Edison and NYC regulators.
The New York Times spoke with Con Edison reps, state regulators and attorneys on both sides, including Louis B. Gerber, who was lead counsel in the case for the New York City Law Department for 3 years. “Con Ed really ignored the problems… the intersection where the accident occurred was constantly giving off steam because water would get in that manhole,” said Gerber, who currently practices family law at Kantrowitz, Goldhamer & Graifman and is no longer involved in the litigation. “They were constantly pumping it out. They were trying to get a quick fix. And then it blew up.”
Questions surface about liability in steam pipe explosion
Litigation has continued over the years, with Con Edison shelling out millions in compensation for victims whose vehicles, clothing and property were damaged in the steam pipe explosion. However, much of the blame for the steam pipe blast was shifted to Team Industrial Services, a Texas-based contractor that purportedly did negligent repair work on the pipes shortly before the accident. According to an independent investigation by Con Edison, the contractors utilized a product that clogged a “crucial device,” contributing to the explosion. Con Edison has since filed suit against Team Industrial, alleging their actions were partially to blame for the disaster.
The New York Times reviewed thousands of court documents from the litigation that point to dubious behavior on the part of Con Edison in an attempt to divert blame.
In court papers filed last year, Team Industrial accused the utility company of tampering with an important piece of equipment to avoid liability in the steam pipe blast. The Texas-based contractor also contended that a NY state regulator colluded with a Con Edison consultant during the investigations.
In documents procured by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe, officials with the consulting firm that backed the Con Ed-sponsored investigation conceded under oath they were unaware that the utility had removed a valve from the steam trap assembly that had been identified as a possible cause for the explosion.
In an affidavit, a former engineer with the Department of Public Works (which oversees the utility) acknowledged that Con Edison failed to replace a steam pipe in the troubled area and had also failed to insulate it properly. This lack of pipe insulation was not mentioned in initial investigative reports, which raises concerns about validity and objectivity.
A Con Edison spokesperson, Michael Clendenin, issued a statement that the company will address allegations in court. Meanwhile, the utility and the city are resolving numerous claims through mediation.
Additional “Steam Pipe Explosion” Resources:
- NY Times, New Questions About Who Is to Blame for Steam Pipe Explosion https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/18/nyregion/steam-pipe-explosion-con-edison.html
- NY Times, Steam Blast Jolts Midtown, Killing One http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/19/nyregion/19explode.html