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The Lingering Manhole Menace

Friday, August 24, 2001; Page A26

AS IF WASHINGTON needed another reminder that its underground is a silo for scud manhole covers, four more of these deadly weapons were blown into the air this month in a series of fiery explosions as Saturday night diners filled the tables of Dupont Circle restaurants. For a good 18 months now, the city has been threatened by violent disruptions; so far, no one has been killed. Surprisingly little is yet known about the precise causes of these blasts -- other than the fact that in certain neighborhoods the subterranean electrical systems are old and weak.

Recent Pepco inspections beneath Georgetown's streets found areas choked with cables, many showing signs of load stress and overheating. A consulting firm hired by Pepco found that its practices "may not be adequate" to stop the overheating in some spots; Pepco may not have reduced current enough where primary and secondary lines run side by side. The utility is now changing its design criteria. A larger question has yet to be answered satisfactorily: Might Pepco have responded faster and more effectively than it has, or was it hit by difficult-to-detect deterioration and other unavoidable occurrences?

The D.C. Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities in the city, has hired a consulting firm to examine Pepco's procedures and submit a report by November. Commission Chairman Angel M. Cartagena Jr. says that he has seen nothing indicating "that Pepco has been acting with malice or that they're trying to hide anything." He says the report was ordered to unearth better explanations of the incidents.

Whatever the commission report turns up, city leaders as well as Pepco must not let their response flag. In May Pepco did conclude that piecemeal patching of the system wasn't working and that a major repair program was in order. Mayor Williams said the work would be expedited. In the meantime additional patchwork changes have been made; new manhole covers, with slots to allow smoke and gas to escape, were installed in Georgetown. Though utility experts note that not all manhole blasts are caused by the same circumstances, other neighborhoods might well want similar protection.

The ripping up of Georgetown -- sure to be a mess -- is set to begin next month. There and elsewhere, decrepit underground systems must be addressed as emergencies.

2001 The Washington Post Company

For a good 18 months now . . . .

And the subterranean electrical systems suddenly became old and weak just post-rollover?

-- L. Hunter Cassells (, August 24, 2001

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