[from March 2000 issue]


The recent Pepco underground conduit fires, most notably last month in Georgetown, but elsewhere downtown even more recently, have underscored once again that the city's infrastructure is dangerously creaky and may just be held together by a hefty dose of good luck.

We applaud Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans for so quickly and strongly calling on Pepco to find the answers and develop a program to correct problems. While the utility in good faith surely is not trying to cut maintenance corners to fatten the dividend checks, it must nevertheless demonstrate to the public and the ratepayers that its systems are in first-class working order.

We are not always confident that the utilities are on top of things. We have read and seen too many reports of explosions and fires, albeit mostly in the suburbs, to make us nervous. But the fact that these occurrences seem to happen in new-ish subdivisions makes us really wonder if we're not living on borrowed time in downtown DC. Think about it for a minute: We have a very large, closely-packed residential community situated in the areas known as "Old City 1" and "Old City 2." And old they are, with much that's under the streets dating from the post-Civil War days of Boss Shepherd.

Now, we're not implying that Pepco's cables are that old. But the Pepco business made us think about the gas lines. And that worries us even more, because many of those lines snaking around Old City 1 and 2 are really awfully old.

But, even more disconcerting is that, over many years of this commentator's personal experience, we have come to learn that the gas company often hasn't a clue where its mains run or where the feeder lines to old house actually enter. We know, for example, near Dupont Circle gas company personnel have often been known to actually argue with homeowners about where their meters are located. They will be referring to "official" charts that show the lines entering from the street when, in fact, they may be entering from the rear alley! While the meter-reading department may know, the repair service department sometimes believes otherwise.

This sort of thing does not engender confidence. It would be tragic indeed if dozens or more residents get killed because of lack of knowledge where the gas lines run. It is also not good to put historic buildings and surrounding neighborhoods, whether historic districts or not, at risk of physical destruction.

While we agree that our Ward 2 council member acted in our collective best interest, we believe that a greater response is required. We urge that the city's Public Service Commission and the city council's Committee on Public Works launch a coordinated independent investigation on the soundness of our utility lines, both gas and electric, to determine whether they are all in conformance with the most modern standards for safety and efficacy and whether the procedures for regular maintenance and replacement where necessary exceed the minimum industry standards. This would include an urgent review of the accuracy of all maps and charts purporting to show the location of live utility transmission lines and their individual feeder lines into each and every building. Every piece of paper and every computer file containing this kind of information absolutely must be reviewed and confirmed for accuracy before the city and its residents face a genuine disaster.