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It’s Gonna Blow

The aged infrastructure under the streets of Albany is proving to be dangerous—so when is the problem getting fixed?

by E.S. Cormac on July 3, 2013

There is something lurking under the manholes of downtown Albany, and it’s not adolescent pizza-eating turtles wielding nunchuks.

Ten manholes have either exploded into the air or bellowed smoke since September 2012. City officials and National Grid are scrambling to find a remedy.

The underground problem is caused by frayed electric lines and moisture, and the amount of rain the Capital Region received in recent weeks has not helped, according to National Grid spokesman Steve Brady. He also explained that electric fires cause a buildup of smoke, and because the space where the wires run is small, the smoke creates pressure and can pop the manhole covers off their seal.

“Safety is our primary concern; we have accelerated our program to respond to this,” Brady said. That program includes weekly reports to Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings, performing a series of rigorous inspections, and replacing 15,000 feet of wire in the downtown area. National Grid expects to have the situation under control before the end of summer, he added.

National grid is also testing a series of manhole covers that are vented, to eliminate the pressure problem that causes the lids to pop. “More water does pour into the manhole though,” Brady said. He noted that the utility company began to use these in different areas in the city two months ago.

Brady said that Albany residents should notify National Grid (800-642-4272) whenever they see a dislodged manhole cover or smoke coming from one and noted that sometimes the lids can be dislodged by vehicle traffic, which could damage cars and present a tripping hazard for pedestrians. “The lids can weigh 200 pounds, sometimes more,” said Brady.

“The mayor has made his concerns known and is getting a response that is more serious,” said Albany Treasurer and mayoral candidate Kathy Sheehan. According to her office, National Grid is one of the 10 top employers in the city, and paid $2.7 million in property tax payments, and an additional $760,000 in Utilities Gross Receipts Tax in 2013—facts that Sheehan said prove the utility company is invested and concerned about Albany.

“This is an opportunity to look at the sustainability of our infrastructure, and fix what’s down there in a greener more environmental manner,” she added.

The response to the problem by the city and National Grid has drawn criticism from some. On Thursday (June 27) a faulty wire caused a power outage at the Times Union Center and forced a local radio host, Paul Vandenburgh of Talk 1300 AM, off the air. Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy and Times Union Center general manager Bob Belber held a joint news conference the following day. The two expressed their displeasure at what they see as a lack of concern from both the mayor’s office and National Grid.

National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella pointed out that the Times Union Center has a secondary cable that was supplying the arena with power, but the building’s own power system had a fault that led to the power outage, according to a Times Union report.

Approximately 30 minutes after the press conference, another manhole cover began smoldering nearby.