- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2000

District of Columbia Council members looking into the spate of manhole explosions intend to grill utility officials today on plans to upgrade the deteriorating network of cables and conduits underneath city streets.

"If the utilities are just waiting as long as they can [to replace the system], that's unacceptable," said council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican and chairman of the Public Works Committee.

Some of the underground explosions were caused by a buildup of gases or smoke in tunnels, utility officials have said. Others have been sparked by electrical cables eroded by snow-removing chemicals.

Mrs. Schwartz will hold a joint hearing today with council member Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat and chairman of the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee, on the manhole blasts, which began Feb. 18 in Georgetown.

Officials from Potomac Electrical Power Co. and Washington Gas, who have blamed each other for the Georgetown explosions, are slated to testify. Peter G. LaPorte, director of the D.C. Emergency Management Agency and the head of the D.C. Manhole Cover Explosions Task Force, also will testify.

The ad hoc task force on Friday released 12 recommendations to improve communication among utilities and city agencies. The task force, along with the utilities, expects to examine and assess all power and utility systems under the District to correct problems that lead to manhole blasts.

"I'm not going to let this go, and I'm sure Mrs. Ambrose won't either," Mrs. Schwartz said yesterday. "We will try to get as much [information] as we can."

"We're going to follow up on some issues," said Mrs. Ambrose. "The current safety concerns are one thing."

No injuries have been reported in any of the manhole explosions.

Pepco is concentrating its examination of power lines under Georgetown, where the underground infrastructure is oldest.

Much of the electrical system under Georgetown has not been modernized, and M Street is a major east-west corridor for all utilities, making the underground setup particularly congested there, utility officials have said.

Another concern is the financial impact of the manhole explosions, like damage to city streets and sidewalks, and losses of commercial income and tax revenues for the city when streets and shops are closed during the incidents and repairs.

The Georgetown shopping district has witnessed some of the city's biggest manhole explosions. As recently as last week, two fireballs erupted on M Street within two days and a few feet from one another.

The first fire shut down electrical power to nearly 2,000 customers, and many businesses were forced to close.

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