Con Edison Steam Explosion Releases Asbestos, Recalling Con Edison Conviction in 1989 Gramercy Park Explosion

A major explosion of Con Edison steam facilities near Grand Central Station apparently led to the death of one person and injured others. According to today’s news reports, asbestos has been found in debris spewed by the explosion. In Asbestos and Aging Pipes Remain Buried Hazards, today’s New York Times recalls that in 1989, a Con Edison steam system explosion killed three persons in the Gramercy Park area:

The event yesterday stoked fears not just because of the power of the blast, but because many of the city’s oldest steam pipes are covered with asbestos for insulation, and those around the accident could be at risk if they inhale significant amounts of tainted air.

That was the fear back in 1989, when Con Ed was criticized after a major steam pipe explosion near Gramercy Park for waiting four days before notifying residents of the area about possible asbestos contamination.

“Criticized” — and Indicted for Criminal Violations
Two federal grand jury indictments “criticized” Con Edison for environmental law violations and conspiracy for not giving timely and proper notice of asbestos release. See Con Ed Again Indicted in Release of Asbestos. In Con Edison Goes on Trial in Asbestos Case, the Times reported:

Five years after a steam-pipe explosion rocked the Gramercy Park area in Manhattan, sending a stream of sludge 18 stories into the air, a criminal trial opened yesterday into charges that the Consolidated Edison Company and one of its former executives concealed that large amounts of asbestos were released by the blast.

Eight women and eight men, four of whom will be alternates, were selected as jurors yesterday after Federal District Judge John S. Martin Jr. posed a series of questions. “You will be asked to judge whether the defendants failed to report, in certain instances, the fact that the explosion had released asbestos into the area,” Judge Martin said. * * * *

The blast on Aug. 19, 1989, which killed 3 people and injured 24, shot scalding mud and debris 18 stories into the air and coated apartment buildings in the area with a layer of brown sludge as steam spewed from a manhole with a thunderous roar that lasted nearly four hours.

After the explosion, Con Edison offered assurances that the blast did not release asbestos, and some residents moved back into their apartments. But within four days, after residents hired laboratories to perform their own tests, the city’s Health Department ordered that two buildings in the East Side neighborhood be evacuated because of the heavy presence of asbestos.

Asbestos can cause cancer or lung disease if it is inhaled in large amounts over a long period, experts say.

In December 1993, a Federal grand jury charged that Con Edison did not tell Federal officials for four days that the blast had caused the release of 200 pounds of asbestos. When they did tell the officials, the notification gave false or misleading information, to save the cost of a cleanup and relocation of tenants, the indictment asserted.

Not Just “Criticized,” Con Edison was Convicted
While the trial was underway, Con Edison pleaded guilty and was convicted. The Times reported that “[t]he company pleaded guilty to four counts charging conspiracy, failure to notify authorities of the asbestos threat, making false and fraudulent statements, and deceiving the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Recovery Center.” Con Ed Admits to Conspiracy To Cover Up Asbestos in Blast

Asbestos Released in Yesterday’s Explosion
Today, Con Edison announced in a press release that asbestos was released by the explosion. Con Edison Reports Asbestos Found in Debris from Midtown Steam-main Rupture. According to Con Edison, asbestos was not found in air samples but was found in debris.

The company urges persons in the area at the time of the explosion to bring in the clothes they wore to a pick-up point and to claim reimbursement:

Anyone who was in that area around 6 p.m. who has dust or debris on clothing or belongings should put them in a plastic bag and bring it to the Con Edison customer service van parked at the corner of Madison Avenue and 42nd Street. The van will be at that location for the next several days from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Con Edison will arrange for the safe disposal of these items. Customer care personnel will be available to help people fill out a reimbursement request.

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