Demanding answers to East Harlem explosion

From left, Bruce Farina of Utility Workers of America Local 1-2, Eileen Gonzalez of El Barrio Community Action and Johnnie Stevens.Photo: Rosa Grable

From left, Bruce Farina of Utility Workers of America Local 1-2, Eileen Gonzalez of El Barrio
Community Action and Johnnie Stevens.
Photo: Rosa Grable

At a June 18 City Council public hearing, an ad hoc coalition of tenants and activists stepped up the fight to make Con Edison accountable for the East Harlem gas explosion in March that killed eight residents and left more than 80 homeless.

The hearing, on assessing the economic impact of New York’s failing infrastructure, was co-chaired by City Council members Dan Garodnick, chair of the Economic Development Committee; Donovan Richards, chair of the Environmental Protection Committee; and Rafael Espinal Jr., chair of the Consumer Affairs Committee.

New Yorkers in Solidarity with the Survivors and Community of East Harlem and El Barrio, which was formed following the explosion, issued demands focusing on Con Ed’s culpability and debt to the victims and the community.

Johnnie Stevens, the group’s founder and director, called on the National Transportation Safety Board to plan a public hearing in East Harlem to determine what is needed for the community and what must be done to prevent such a disaster from recurring.

Stevens said Con Ed’s liability must be fully investigated: “Could this have been prevented? What is Con Ed doing now to to prevent future disasters? Are they doing all they can to make restitution to the community?”

Stevens indicated in an interview with Workers World that a hearing in the neighborhood could help residents seek progress for their community beyond gas leaks. “It is only right that the hearing be located in the area of this tragic disaster. … The community has been neglected for too long. With a hearing in their backyard, the residents can have a part in creating their own future.”

‘A lot of anger in the community’

At the City Council hearing, Eileen Gonzalez focused on the community’s difficulties in dealing with social issues, including immigration. Gonzalez has been a resident in the neighborhood’s public Taft Houses for more than 20 years and is a member of the East Harlem El Barrio Community Action group, which gave material aid to explosion survivors. Immigrants, who account for a large part of the area’s population, are afraid of being deported if they engage in political activities, she said.

Both Stevens and Ken Gale, host and producer of the environmental show “Eco-Logic” on WBAI Radio, said that residents from the community should be hired to fix the pipes and the buildings.

“There is a lot of anger in the community, but a lot of it is focused constructively,” said Gale, who noted the slow reaction of the city in restoring services to the community. “I am confident that the blown-out windows of the surrounding buildings would have been replaced much faster in my own neighborhood. I’m saying everyone should have the same speedy service.”

Gale added that “our addiction to fossil fuel was partly or largely to blame” for the pipeline explosion. He suggested making buildings more energy efficient and using solar energy. As of now, Con Ed is not giving up old-fashioned gas for the sun.

A report issued by Mayor Bill de Blasio on the day of the hearing stated that the city’s fire department is now responding to all reported gas leaks, a significant increase in that agency’s role. According to the report, the department has been responding to every leak since the explosion.

“Obviously it’s disappointing that none of us were made aware of the recommendations in advance of the hearing today,” said Council Member Garodnick.

Edward Foppiano, Con Ed’s senior vice president of gas operations, said the fire department has an average response time of eight minutes for non-fire-related calls, while Con Ed’s response time to gas leaks is between 20 and 25 minutes.