Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association with Con Edison Meeting Minutes


The following are the minutes of the special meeting of VHNA and Con Edison held at Phoenix House on 5/23/12. Thank you to Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association President Aldona Vaiciunas and Brook Stanton for providing the minutes. Click on more to read the full details.

{Brief recap of the ConEd-VHNA meeting, 25May2012}
{Special Meeting of the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association on Fire at ConEd, 22May2012}
{ConEd Substation Explosion Collateral Damage, 14May2012}
{Fire at ConEd Plant in Vinegar Hill Yesterday (Again), 30Apr2012}
{ConEd Transformer Explosion in Dumbo, 16Sept2011}

Special Meeting of the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association and Con Edison
Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012
Phoenix House

Meeting Synopsis:
In response to the April 29, 2012 fire and explosion at Con Edison’s Farragut sub-station, a special Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association meeting, open to the public, was held on May 23rd, 2012 at the Phoenix House on Jay Street in DUMBO. At the meeting representatives from Con Edison gave a presentation explaining the causes of the fire and their response to it, while fielding questions from residents who remain concerned about safety, health, and property damage. The panel answering questions included representatives from Con Edison, the Department of Environmental Protection’s Hazmat Division, the Office of Emergency Management, the FDNY, and an occupational health expert from Columbia University’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety. In the audience were representatives of Community Boards Two and Three, City Council Member Steve Levin, Officers of the DUMBO and Vinegar Hill neighborhood associations, the DUMBO BID and approximately twenty-five concerned residents of the neighborhoods affected by the fire and explosion”.

41 persons attended this meeting. Of these, approximately 22 were neighbors, the rest being affiliated with the agencies listed above.

Causes of the event

Con Edison Vice President in charge of NYC’s substation operations and a colleague began with a presentation describing the explosion/fire and its causes. The event was described as a rare one, although it has been the second accident to occur at the facility in the last six months.

The Farragut substation, one of many in the five boros and Westchester, was described as a 345 Kilovolt transmission substation serving lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn.

The fire occurred in a shunt reactor, which is a specialized, oil-filled transformer. A porcelain-coated bushing leading to the reactor failed and ignited the oil. The equipment in question dates from approximately 1981.

Con Edison representatives then described the sprinkler system around the reactor, which is there to cool and contain a fire, but not put it out. It was described as having done its job in good working order.

After a neighbor asked why the bushing exploded, Con Edison reps said the failed part is undergoing an autopsy to determine what went wrong with it, which was still unknown at the time of the meeting described here. Reps described it as “crucial” that they know why the unit failed.

A detailed series of questions and answers followed on the topic of what a “reactor” is and how it relates to the electrical phenomena of reactance and capacitance. In general, “reactive” power was described as the kind of power used to initiate action in, for example, a stationary rotor. The reactor unit was described as having a copper core surrounded by insulating oil.

Response to the Event

Con Edison reps then described the utility’s “White Hat” program, in which a designated person arrives on the scene of an accident and coordinates disaster or accident management with the FDNY, DEP, and other responders.

During the fire, 685 gallons of the coolant oil was burned off. As regards PCBs, a routine random PCP sampling of the oil was done in 2003 and showed a PCB level of less than 1 p.p.m.

A resident asked about the last accident prior to the one discussed here. Reps answered that on September 16th, 2011, there was a fire related to a phase-angle regulator and a piece of equipment containing 90,000 gallons of oil. The failed unit there has been replaced.

Representatives then described the system of fail-safe mechanisms, like moats and switches, designed to prevent the spread of a fire from place to place in a substation. A resident asked what would happen if there were a failure and two units began to burn. It was answered that something will always prevent the spread of a fire, but “over-trips” involved would mean taking units out of service and causing a reduction in power available to customers.

A resident then asked about problems associated with putting out an oil fire with water. At this time a Representative of the FDNY described the foams and encapsulation techniques available to them in these situations.

A resident asked what the bushing autopsy showed, but no answer was available.

A resident asked about PCB levels, but was referred to an upcoming presentation on that topic.

City Council Member Levin asked how severe Con Edison would describe this accident as being on a scale of bad to worse. A definite answer did not follow.

A resident then displayed a chunk of porcelain that had landed on his property. He was told to be careful because porcelain fragments are sharp.

A neighbor then noted that video of the accident is available online and seems to show that the sprinklers were pointed in the wrong direction, and then asked if the sprinklers are regularly tested. Con Edison reps answered that the sprinklers had worked correctly.

More questions followed about the safety equipment around transformers, to which the general answer was that there is a person at each substation responsible for routinely testing all of the safety mechanisms.

A neighbor asked if it is uncommon to find a substation so near to a residential neighborhood as the Farragut station is to DUMBO and Vinegar Hill. The answer was that this is common because these stations must be, by physical necessity, near to the customers they serve. Another neighbor noted that this answer seemed inconsistent with the earlier statement that the Farragut substation feeds lower Manhattan.

Council member Steve Levin asked how long this station has been around, to which the answer was 50 years. Mr. Levin then thanked everyone present for their contribution to creating a productive meeting. He stated that the health and safety of his constituents was always absolutely his foremost priority, noting also that he has been involved in legislation regarding PCBs in the public schools. He then added that the goal of the meeting should be to get as much information circulating as possible so as to address as many concerns as there may be.

PCB and Oil Contamination Discussion

Hence, a special representative of Con Ed’s health and safety division then turned the discussion to PCBs. He indicated that seven samples near the plant had been taken after the accident , including swabs of bluestone, oil on a puddle, a car, etc. Of the seven, six showed a safe level of less than 1ppm of PCBs . One sample came back with an elevated but allegedly not dangerous reading of 3ppm. But as this sample was taken 200 feet upwind of the accident at John and Bridge Streets, it was suggested that this elevated reading might not be due to the accident here discussed.

It was then noted that the EPA has set a limit of 50ppm of PCBs as the safety threshold in the context of an accident, and that fuel burned by this fire could have resulted in no more than a release of a half-ounce of PCBs, which here would signify an insignificant amount.

In response to a question, the safety rep then described how PCBs like to bind to oil and do not tend to get airborne. But residents then expressed worries about their garden plants and property that still have oily residue on them from the smoke that came through Vinegar Hill. In response, the safety rep then deemed unlikely that any PCBs could be detected in such residue. Residents continued to insist, however, that there is a lot of this oily smoke residue still to be found around Vinegar Hill. But since routine tests at the substation have shown in the past that PCB levels in the oil are low, there should be, allegedly, no elevated levels in smoke residue. A neighbor then displayed an oil-spotted leaf from her garden; another asked what radius around the fire was or can be tested for toxins. It was answered that there is no operating protocol, but testing nearest to the fire is generally most helpful.

Then a neighbor asked if they could present residue for testing and have it cleaned up by Con Ed. The answer was that yes, Con Edison is responsible for clean up and has a claims division where cleanup costs can be submitted for reimbursement. But residents continued to insist that residue on their property should be tested. This sentiment was emphatically repeated by Vinegar Neighborhood Association President Aldona Vaiciunas, who insisted that something be done to help worried VH residents. The Con Edison Vice President present then said that perhaps some local testing could be set up and that our President should coordinate with him.

Another neighbor expressed worries about the fact that all of Con Ed’s tests had been performed in-house without contributions from any neutral third-party entities. The response to this question was that the Department of Heath certifies Con Ed’s testing facilities and procedures.

Further questions arose about what kind of oil exactly had burned. It was described as a light mineral oil, but with an anti-corrosion agent and other agents added to it. Other neighbors expressed worries that external toxins could be present, perhaps from burning paint or other equipment parts. This neighbor noted that her son had gotten soot on his clothes and had been examined by first responders, but that no testing of the soot had been done. The FDNY representative present noted that no one had been treated at the scene for injuries.

Another neighbor asked if we could get something in writing from Con Edison certifying that there are no lingering dangers associated with the accident. This neighbor further asked whether the exact content of burned materials could be given in writing.

At this point the Con Edison Vice President personally apologized to all of those present for not reaching out to our neighborhoods sooner. Another neighborhood representative suggested should be a procedure set up at Con Edison that would dictate a quick response to residents affected by any accident.

Council member Levin then asked why it is that not all of the oil turned up the same amount of PCBs, to which the reply was that some of the PCBs detected by Con Edison probably came from somewhere else. Con Edison reps also noted that the EPA has not outlawed the use of all older equipment associated with PCBs.

Discussion of Medical Questions

At this point in the meeting a physician from Columbia University’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety presented some information and fielded questions. He discussed the first famous instance of PCB poisoning, which occurred in Japan in 1966 when rice coated with a PCB-treated oil made many people sick. He noted that PCB poisoning causes a specific condition skin condition called chloracne, which is caused by nothing else and hence is diagnostically decisive of PCP poisoning.

A neighbor asked if Con Edison knew the exact contents of the oil that burned. The reply was that Material Safety Data Sheets are on file and available to the public. Another neighbor emphatically demanded to know what has ended up in our soil. Still another neighbor asked to know what else in the accident burned that could be toxic. Con Edison representatives noted that there could possibly be lead paint in some parts of the reactor that burned.

The discussion was then redirected to PCBs, which the Columbia physician insisted was the one chemical of concern in this accident. But residents continued to insist that other toxic chemicals could be involved. A Con Edison rep noted that mineral oil is not toxic, but a neighbor asked then again whether or not the test results were a matter of public record. The answer was the PCB test results are reported to the DEP and the City.

A neighbor then asked how, as a neighborhood, we would be warned in the case of an accident that presented serious danger. Is there a siren, a person who comes door to door, or anything like that, she asked. The Vice President present conceded that overall, Con Edison should be more proactive with public outreach. Another neighbor asked what they could do to get information to us all faster, but this question was left unanswered.

Another VH resident asked at what point the FDNY is allowed onto Con Edison property in an emergency. An FDNY representative present answered that the fire department has to follow the lead of Con Edison since they are the ones with the most expertise as regards dangers from electricity, explosions, etc.

A neighbor then noted that dioxin affects children more than adults, and given that, asked why an elementary school in Vinegar Hill had not been tested for contaminants. The reply was that PCBs were simply not a danger in this case.

A brief discussion followed about the medical procedures involved with testing for various toxins.

Council member Levin urged residents not to eat vegetables that may have been exposed to the smoke after which a discussion followed about the claims process for property damage reimbursement; the Con Edison Vice President present pledged to try to expedite the claims process.

Further questions asked included why the DEP had been present at the Farragut substation on the same day as the meeting here described. The reply was that their visit was unrelated to the accident. Another neighbor asked why there are not containment walls around equipment with the potential to explode, while still another neighbor asked simply whether or not it is safe to live nearby to a facility like Farragut. The reply given was that yes, it is generally safe.

Another neighbor asked why residents had not been notified immediately that a fire was in progress, to which the reply given was that this complaint seemed fair. However, the Office of Emergency Management representative present said that they have a notification system that New Yorkers can sign up for.

In conclusion, Council member Levin encouraged those present to file claims, even small ones, for reimbursement, and then to follow up with his office. He acknowledged again and commended those present for their participation, after which the official meeting was adjourned.

Respectfully Submitted,
Brook Stanton

2 Comment