In the wake of a manhole explosion that injured at least two people last month, the president of the state Board of Public Utilities wants a “thorough investigation…by a qualified engineering firm” into the design, operation and maintenance of Jersey Central Power & Electric’s network in Morristown.
Lee Solomon, the BPU president, cited “numerous ‘incidents'” stretching back five to 10 years. He said his staff will ask the board to authorize the investigation at a Sept. 21 meeting.
His concerns were conveyed in a letter to Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty and other elected officials who pressed the BPU to get answers from JCP&L after the Aug. 31 explosion, which reportedly burned an unidentified female motorist while singing the arm of another driver, Bret Sharretts of Morristown, at the intersection of James and South streets.
“In light of recent events, staff is in full agreement that there must be a thorough investigation undertaken by a qualified engineering firm,” Lee Solomon wrote.
“The scope would include, among other things, a critique of the system design vis-à-vis the numerous ‘incidents’ over the past 5-10 years, an assessment of JCP&L operating & maintenance practices, and recommendations for improvements.”
The BPU president said the latest episode occurred when a JCP&L switch “failed to act properly.” At the time, a JCP&L spokesman said the incident was unrelated to the power restoration effort that was ongoing after Tropical Storm Irene knocked most of Morristown offline. Many residents who had just regained electricity reported losing it again after the manhole cover blew.
On Sept. 4, the faulty switch was removed and stored at JCP&L’s Ridgedale Avenue facility for future examination at the BPU’s direction, Lee Solomon said. An environmental contractor was scheduled to clean any oil contamination from the manhole, and permanent repairs were set for today, Sept. 8, he said.
The letter made no reference to the Morristown & Township Library, which blew up last year. Mayor Dougherty said he has “full confidence,” based on a phone conversation with Lee Solomon earlier this week, that the BPU will solve that mystery, too.
“The public demands an answer,” said the Mayor, noting that the cause of a 1994 explosion at the library never was disclosed; instead there was a settlement. “We don’t want that to happen again,” he said.
Both JCP&L and Public Service Electric & Gas have denied causing last May’s library blast. A fast evacuation by library staff moments before the explosion averted any injuries. Two-thirds of the library remain closed for repairs.
Regarding the recurring manhole fires and explosions, the Mayor said Lee Solomon made clear during their conversation that the investigation “won’t be by a handpicked engineer from JCP&L.”
BPU Executive Director Richard Jackson met in the Mayor’s office with the Mayor and Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (R-25th Dist.) last week, a day after the manhole explosion.
The Mayor, who attended a mayors’ gathering at the Governor’s mansion on Thursday, thanked Gov. Chris Christie for helping arrange the BPU meeting, along with state Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-25th Dist.), the assemblyman’s father.
Gov. Christie told the mayors that he has asked for BPU hearings across the state on utilities’ response to the storm. The Governor was critical of JCP&L, according to the Asbury Park Press:
“The JCP&L numbers were constantly lagging significantly behind the other companies,” he said. “I want an explanation for that. This investigation and set of hearings will get answers to the questions.”
Morristown emergency management officials also are reviewing their response to the storm, and will share their critique at the Sept. 13 council meeting, Mayor Dougherty said.
The Mayor also expressed thanks to state Sen. Richard Codey (D-27th Dist.) for helping keep pressure on JCP&L to restore power to residents after Tropical Storm Irene flooded a substation.