New York cleans up after asbestos-tainted blast

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Some New Yorkers doubted official assurances on Thursday that the air surrounding a deadly steam pipe explosion in midtown Manhattan was safe to breathe despite the discovery of asbestos-tainted debris.

Workers began cleaning up the site of Wednesday evening’s blast, which shook buildings, unleashed a geyser of steam and boiling, brownish water and sent people fleeing in scenes reminiscent of the September 11 attacks in 2001.

A six-square-block area beside busy Grand Central Station was cordoned off by police wearing breathing masks after tests showed the debris contained asbestos -- widely used in the past as a flame retardant and insulator but now known to be a dangerous carcinogen.

Authorities said no airborne asbestos had been detected after the rush-hour blast that caused the death of one woman of cardiac arrest while fleeing and injured 45 others.

“Every single test we did of the air showed there was no asbestos in the air,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, adding the tiny asbestos exposure from debris some may have suffered was unlikely to cause harm.

Officials said cold water on the pipe could have caused the explosion.

New Yorkers’ skepticism about the air quality stems from false assurances after the September 11 attacks and after utility Consolidated Edison admitted covering up asbestos contamination of a residential neighborhood in a steam pipe explosion in 1989 that killed three people.

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Carlos Garcia, an engineer wearing a breathing mask, said he volunteered during the clean-up of the World Trade Center site after the buildings collapsed in a billow of debris in the 2001 attacks and would not take any risks now.

“I’m worried about the air,” he said. “I survived once so I want to survive the second time. They lie and they want to cover themselves. They have been lying all along since the World Trade Center.”


In the days after the September 11 attacks, residents and workers at Ground Zero were told by the Environmental Protection Agency the air was safe. Dust samples taken at the time found dangerous levels of asbestos.

“If police are here wearing these masks there must be an issue,” said Marvin Factor, 60, a banker who could not reach his office. “We deserve to know.”

ConEd asked people near the explosion to hand in any belongings covered in dust or debris in a bag for safe disposal. It urged nearby residents to keep windows closed.

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“This is a plain old reality with an aging infrastructure around the country and in New York in particular,” said Dan Gabaldon, an energy expert at consultant Booz Allen Hamilton. “Frankly it’s not overly surprising.”

Normal subway service had resumed but about 20 blocks were closed to traffic. At Lexington Avenue and 41st Street, there was a crater some 20 feet wide.

The steam pipe, 24 inches in diameter, was installed in 1924. The explosion is the latest embarrassment for ConEd, which is under scrutiny for power blackouts.

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“I think the city should inspect more often. These pipes are old. They should know they burst,” said Marline Tolentino, who works for an insurance company.

New York City Council member Dan Garodnick announced City Hall hearings on the explosion for August 7 and said ConEd had inspected the area above the pipes for possible damage to the steam system on Wednesday. Asked if the pipes themselves were inspected, ConEd Vice President for Emergency Management George Greenwood said, “I have no knowledge of that.”

While most New York buildings use electricity, an aging network of steam pipes beneath the city is used to spin ConEd power turbines. The steam also provides heat and air conditioning to some large buildings.