- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2000

Potomac Electric Power Co. will expand inspections of its underground network and experiment with a grated or vented manhole cover to reduce the chances of a buildup of gases blowing it off, officials said yesterday.

The announcement came one day after an underground fire in Georgetown dislodged a manhole cover on M Street and disrupted power to about 2,000 residents and businesses in the Northwest neighborhood.

"We had a manhole fire between two manholes. We didn't have any explosion," Bill Gausman, Pepco general manager of power distribution, said yesterday during a press conference. "There was no gas present."

Pepco restored power to about 1,900 customers by noon yesterday while utility workers removed and tagged cables and lines involved in the fire for forensic tests. Officials blamed a failure of low-voltage cables for the fire.

Mr. Gausman said Pepco will send two new manhole designs to the Electric Power Research Institute in Massachusetts later this summer. The research group will run tests to determine whether a grated or vented manhole cover will reduce the probability of flipping lids among Pepco's more than 57,000 manholes.

The tests will run about six weeks and may begin as early as July, Mr. Gausman said.

Sunday's fire began about 7 a.m. and flipped an 80-pound iron manhole cover at M Street and Thomas Jefferson Place. No one was injured, and officials said it was not related to underground explosions that blew off three manhole covers in February in the same part of town.

"There's no reason to believe there is a widespread problem," Mr. Gausman said. "It appears that the failure occurred in the low-voltage cables and spread. We're still making repairs they will probably go into [today].

"While our underground network system is extremely reliable, fires can continue to happen despite our best efforts," Mr. Gausman said, adding that similar problems plague utilities across the country.

Most of the stores, restaurants and hotels affected by the loss of power stand along the 2900 and 3000 blocks of M Street, between 28th Street and Wisconsin Avenue.

They are the same businesses that were forced to close Feb. 18, when authorities shut down the major artery for hours after explosions flipped several manhole covers and shattered windows.

Pepco blamed the February explosions on Washington Gas workers, saying they nicked a power cable. Washington Gas officials said their tests showed the cable could not have been penetrated.

Since then, Pepco officials said they have conducted regular inspections but found only "minor problems."

"These events are scary and potentially quite dangerous," D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican and chairman of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment, said.

Both Pepco and Washington Gas officials are expected to testify June 15 at a council hearing on manhole explosions.

"The council, through these hearings, is seeking to get all the information it can … as to why these explosions happen and what can be done to avoid them in the future," Mrs. Schwartz said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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