Bursting Pipes Spew Trouble Under New York

Recent water-main explosions that have spread asbestos debris over streets, subways, and buildings are raising concern among New Yorkers. There have been four explosions in the last month and a half. The latest, occurring on Sept. 25, sent an absestos-laden geyser from a nearby steam pipe 250 feet into the air. The first explosion on Aug. 19 killed three people and injured 24.

Water-main explosions, which often lead to asbestos contamination, are not unusual. New York, like many cities of the United States, is experiencing the crumbling of its infrastructure of roads and pipes. Pipes are covered with asbestos for insulation.

In a water-main explosion on Aug. 3, 50 pounds of asbestos spread over 11 city blocks of subway. Four subway stations were closed for several weeks, affecting more than 500,000 commuters.

``It's not the apocalypse, but the systems are becoming more vulnerable as the cities become more populated,'' says Nancy Rutledge Connery, former executive director of the National Council of Public Works Improvement.

``It's a tight and crowded underground system,'' says Andrew McCarthy, of the Department of Environmental Protection. ``Our safety record is good. ... We don't see any patterns.''

But New Yorkers may wonder how long that record will last. The pipes in each of the incidents were more than 50 years old. The Sept. 3 water-main explosion, which ripped the asbestos cover off a Consolidated Edison steam pipe, closed eight blocks of 8th Avenue for three days.

``There are over 130 miles of main surface pipes in Manhattan,'' says Marty Gitten, a spokesman for Con Edison. ``Since we did not stop using asbestos until 1975, most of those pipes are still wrapped in it.''

New Yorker Gloria Choukroun experienced these events firsthand. She was in the fashion boutique she and her husband own on Gramercy Park South when the first Con Edison steam pipe exploded on Aug. 19.

For four days, the Choukrouns, along with the rest of the neighborhood, were breathing asbestos until the city finally acknowledged that there was a health hazard and began evacuations. ``Con Edison and the city acted irresponsibly,'' Mrs. Choukroun says.

The 800 angry people who packed an assembly hall at a public meeting on the issue agreed. They claim that the city acted irresponsibly when it allowed them to return to their apartments on Aug. 19. Tests performed by Con Edison indicated that there was asbestos in the air, and city residents say Mayor Edward Koch has failed to do anything about it.

As the cleanup continues, Con Edison has set up 200 residents in a hotel and has rented apartments for families.

Mr. Gitten, of Con Edison, maintains that the tests taken after the Aug. 19 explosion found no traces of airborne asbestos. He acknowledges, however, that three of the 10 tests taken using mud and dirt samples proved positive. Gitten says that Con Edison told the city the results. McCarthy disagrees. ``The city's tests for asbestos near the explosion showed negative. Con Edison did not share their tests,'' he says.

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