Con Edison says Steam Pipe Involved in New York City Explosion Repaired in March, Inspected Morning of Blast

Wednesday’s violent New York City <"">steam pipe explosion has raised questions regarding Con Edison’s maintenance of the pipe network that runs under the city. And apparently, the steam pipes under 41st Street and Lexington Avenue, the site the massive underground explosion, had been the subject of concern for some time. According to a New York Times report, a leaking steam main under the street had been repaired this past March, and the pipe had been inspected only seven hours before it ruptured. Con Edison characterized the March leak as minor, and said it could not yet say whether the repair played any part in the blast.

Wednesday’s explosion occurred when a 24-inch Con Edison steam pipe burst. New York City officials have said they suspected that cold water from recent heavy rains had collected around the pipe, causing the steam inside to condense. The building pressure inside the pipe caused it to burst, sending hot vapor and asbestos-laden debris hundreds of feet into the air. One woman died as a result of the explosion, and as many as 40 people were injured.

The pipe was part a 105-mile long network that Con Edison uses to heat and cool Manhattan buildings. On March 14, Con Edison made repairs to a joint in the pipe where water had been leaking. Con Edison also said that the pipe was inspected on June 8th and then again Wednesday morning. But the New York Times said that often “inspection” means that a Con Edison worker merely checks a street for signs of rising steam.

Con Edison said that Wednesday’s inspection was prompted by the heavy rain, but that its crew saw no reason for concern. That report contradicts what many witnesses told the New York Times. One business owner told the paper that prior to the blast, so much steam was rising from the street that she could not even see people crossing.

Con Edison will not be able to inspect the ruptured pipe until clean up around the site is completed. The city is still maintaining a “frozen zone” around the blast area while the cleanup continues. Because the debris was riddled with asbestos, the recovery effort is proceeding slowly. The city said it hopes to have some of the streets reopened today, but the blast site itself will remain inaccessible for several more days.

The pipe rupture has caused many to call into question the quality of New York City’s aging infrastructure. Like many cities, much of New York’s infrastructure dates to the early 20th century, and is in need of repair. But Con Edison maintains that this should not have been an issue with the 84-year-old steam pipe because many pipes in the network are much older, and have no history of failure. Since a similar explosion of a cast iron pipe in 1989 killed three people, Con Edison has replaced all cast iron in the system with steel pipes and replaced more than 200 aging pipe joints

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