HomeTop New York utility regulator urges more redundancy after Sept. 11 'watershed'

Top New York utility regulator urges more redundancy after Sept. 11 ‘watershed’

HOUSTON, Jan. 2 — Permanent repair of New York City electric and natural gas services disrupted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could take months, according to the chairman of the New York Public Service Commission.

Most service has been restored using temporary work-arounds, said Maureen Helmer, in an assessment of government and industry responses to the disaster that resulted in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers and surrounding structures, but there is work still to be done.

About 24,000 Consolidated Edison Co. of New York Inc. customers lost electric service in lower Manhattan, and the utility had to halt gas service affecting about 6,000 customers. Helmer said it took 3 days to isolate gas mains, and it is likely to take several more months before Con Edison can inspect all its damaged gas facilities.

The utility company also stopped steam service to 300 large commercial customers in the affected zone. Electric service was restored to the extent it could be Oct. 2 with the help of temporary generators, and Con Edison has committed to have operations ready to meet peak load this summer, Helmer said. Gas and steam were restored about a week after the event.

Helmer said the impact on telecommunications was even worse, with units of Verizon Communications Inc. losing service to 306,000 exchange lines, 4.3 million special service circuits, and 55,596 interoffice trunks. AT&T Corp. lost fiber ring circuits at the World Trade Center with capacity of about 1.1 million circuits. She said 97% of the lines that could be restored were back in service on Nov. 1.

In the face of “unimaginable circumstances,” new uses of geographic information systems (GIS) helped track the recovery effort on a daily basis, Helmer said. Thermal imaging helped isolate gas mains in the so-called “no work” zone. Then the commission’s GIS maps of the gas system were laid over the thermal images of the rubble.

Helmer said this helped resolve fears that an unknown gas line was feeding the “hot zone.” By systematically eliminating alternatives, the recovery teams were able to conclude no gas or steam lines were still alive feeding the Ground Zero area. The hot spots could be attributed to other causes.

“Sept. 11 represented a watershed date in the way regulators and the utility industry view security,” Helmer said. Training for potential Year 2000 computer problems and potential sabotage helped in the disaster response, but Helmer said more preparation and precautions are needed.

She said government and industry should consider if current levels of redundancy are sufficient, and, if not, what the cost implications are of adding further redundancy.

In terms of data access, Helmer said utility regulators must ensure hard copy maps and documents are secure, and she advised utility firms to review web sites to “make sure they are not inadvertently providing valuable information to terrorist organizations.” She also recommended a review of freedom of information laws to ensure critical information held by state agencies doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.