Morristown officials, worried about return of exploding manholes in wake of power outages, express frustration with JCP&L

Morristown Administrator Jillian Barrick, left, expresses concerns about JCP&L response to power outage, Aug. 6 , 2019. Assistant town Attorney Joni McDonnell listens. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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In the wake of power outages that affected hundreds of residents and businesses on Monday, Morristown officials raised concerns about a return of exploding manholes and an inability to get information from Jersey Central Power & Light.

“Despite my repeated requests and cajoling and pleading, quite frankly, for JCP&L to provide explanations as to what has occurred, I have yet to get an explanation from them as to the cause of the faults,” town Administrator Jillian Barrick told the town council on Tuesday.

She referred to a pair of incidents, described by the utility only as “cable faults.”

The first one, reported on Monday morning, affected at least 1,100 customers in Morristown and Morris Township and knocked out traffic signals in the vicinity of Washington Street and North Park Place. Where that “fault” occurred remains unclear. JCP&L reported power was restored by 10:30 am.

A more serious incident followed around 1 pm on Monday, near the train station at the intersection of Lafayette Avenue and Morris Street. When firefighters responded to a report of an underground fire, they saw an iron manhole cover “approximately 12 feet away” from the manhole, Fire Chief Robert Flanagan told MorristownGreen.com.

A JCP&L crew was on the scene about a minute later, the chief said. The utility’s website indicated 2,800 customers lost power: More than 1,700 in the Township, and nearly 1,100 in Morristown. An estimated restoration time of 4 pm got pushed to 11 pm. Sessions were disrupted for at least one doctor on Maple Avenue.

Asked on Tuesday if the manhole cover had indeed exploded,  Cliff Cole, a spokesman for JCP&L’s parent company, First Energy, told Morristown Green: “I’m not aware of it. I can’t  say it didn’t happen.”

Cole said the “cable failure” appeared to be an “isolated issue” not indicative of wider problems. But he said the situation remained under investigation and he did not yet have more details about how Monday’s pair of incidents might be related.

Restoration delays, Cole said, resulted in part because of requests from law enforcement as evening rush hour approached.

“We had to suspend operations for awhile,” the spokesman said.

About a decade ago, Morristown was plagued by underground fires that turned the downtown into a frightening game of manhole roulette. A Morris Township mom was scalded by a geyser as her car waited for a green light at the intersection of South and James streets in 2011.

Some manholes exploded near the library–which was severely damaged by a 2010 explosion that has never been explained, because of an insurance settlement that remains sealed.

New "safety" manhole cover installed in Morristown. Photo: JCP&L
New “safety” manhole cover installed in Morristown, March 2013. Photo: JCP&L

An expert’s investigation in 2012 recommended 25 steps to correct what the state Board of Public Utilities described as JCP&L’s “alarming litany of failures” to perform preventive maintenance. This prompted extensive renovations to Morristown’s antiquated underground electrical grid.

In February of this year, a Morristown police officer was injured directing traffic around an electrical failure at the intersection of South Street and Madison Avenue. A smoky manhole indicated a cable failure that knocked out power for nearly 900 customers, including Morristown Medical Center.

Councilwoman Alison Deeb on Tuesday asked Barrick to reach out again to the BPU.

The town meets quarterly with the BPU and JCP&L, responded the administrator, who said no red flags were raised at the most recent meeting about a month ago.

Barrick said the utility has been diligent about training the town’s emergency responders for electrical emergencies, and also has done considerable pruning of tree branches over the last year, to reduce risks of downed power lines.

But the latest incidents are troubling, Barrick said after Tuesday’s council session.

“I’m certainly concerned,” she told Morristown Green. “You have two faults in one day. It’s absolutely reasonable to question JCP&L about the condition of the infrastructure.”

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Mr. Cavanaugh is correct. I went back to James Street when the road was almost dry and there is no storm sewer at that corner, just 4 manholes at the intersection and other covers for access to underground services between that corner and Kings. All the more reason to be concerned. Where is the water coming from? What has it gotten worse every time they work below ground in that area?

  2. The storm sewer on Morris Street near Lafayette routinely accumulates large overflows, and this is quite near the reported manhole cover explosion. I do not know who is responsibly for clearing the storm sewer.

  3. There aren’t any storm sewers along that stretch of South street, since it’s a State Road the mayor and council need to make a call to the DOT.

  4. This is a sad situation when even the town can’t get a response from JCP&L. It seems like all the residents of Morristown and Morris Township need to individually make complaints to the BPU in order to get some attention.

  5. It common knowledge that water infiltration of underground electric containers causes problems and yet for the past few decades, every time it rains, the amount of water overflowing the sewer at the corner of James and South, seems to increase. This summer, the corner remained flooded long after the storms have ended. Numerous fixes but the problems with the electric services in the street have continue. Why can’t they find the source of the flooding at that corner?

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