Blame game on Willowtown manhole explosion

All Willowtown resident Ralph Morgan knows is he’s out $7,839.75 in building repairs as a result of three manhole covers that exploded at the corner of Willow Place and Joralemon Street Jan. 18.

But in a case of finger-pointing, National Grid blamed the MTA, and the MTA appeared unresponsive at a meeting Tuesday between representatives from various utility companies, the MTA, the city’s Department of Transportation and local residents.

City Councilmember Steve Levin called the meeting to air out what happened on that fateful day, who was responsible and how to prevent the situation from happening again.

National Grid Director of Field Operations Brian McMorrow explained the incident occurred when contractors were installing a National Grid gas line to a property owner’s home.

National Grid always wants to make sure both its workers and the public are safe and followed standard operating procedure, McMorrow explained.

McMorrow said this included calling all the other utility companies to mark where their underground lines were and all these lines were marked, he said.

McMorrow said the workers began to dig when they found the smoking MTA lines connected to the substation nearby. This led to a small incidental gas leak that blew the manhole covers causing damage to the street some surrounding buildings, the MTA substation and the evacuation of more than 150 rattled residents.

“The root cause is that if the transit line was marked the incident wouldn’t have happened,” said McMorrow.

McMorrow said unfortunately the Transit Authority and MTA are not part of a group that are notified whenever utility work happens so lines can be marked.

National Grid approached the Public Utilities Commission and others to get the MTA into this loop.

MTA Assistant Director of Government & Community Relations Andrew Inglesby grew testy and said it was the first he has heard that the MTA is to blame and can the conversation move forward.

At this point Levin said he might introduce a bill that would require the MTA to provide marking of their lines whenever underground work is done.

Inglesby said the MTA usually doesn’t have a substation on every block of the city.

As a result of the manhole explosions the Willow Street substation is no longer working and the MTA will now have to do major street work to rectify the situation.

This will require the digging up of four test pits 22 feet wide done in 11 foot sections so to not close off the streets, and will take eight working days, he said.

Meanwhile Morgan produced a letter from National Grid denying his claim for the money in damages, stating it was the MTA’s fault for violating safety rule number 753.

Morgan said he wrote another letter to National Grid demanding a review of his claim and a settlement in his favor.

“I’m also filing a claim with the MTA,” he added.

– With Tom Tracy