Oil spills into East River after Con Ed transformer failure

May11 Con Ed

Con Ed substation in Manhattan (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

A failure of equipment at a Con Ed substation in Brooklyn has led to a so far unknown amount of oil to leak into the East River.

The U.S. Coast Guard has been responding to the problem since it was reported on Sunday afternoon, though as of Tuesday afternoon, it was unclear if the substance, dielectric fluid, was still leaking into the river in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The fluid, which is used to insulate transformer cables, is a kind of mineral oil, so “It’s not like sludge or petroleum,” said Coast Guard Public Affairs Chief Warrant Officer Allyson Conroy. However, she added, “It’s still not native to the environment it’s leeching into.”

Additionally, while the Coast Guard is not aware of just how much of the oil has been spilled so far, she referred to the failure of a Con Ed transformer that led to the incident as “catastrophic.

“The transformer is caput,” she added.

The failure occurred in a spigot used to test the fluid and since then responders have been attempting to fix the problem 24/7.

According to Gothamist, which first reported on the spill, a “safety zone” is currently in effect on the East River, south of a nautical line drawn from Dupont Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to East 25th Street in Manhattan, and north of Buttermilk Channel.

The blog also reported that delays along the East River ferry route were expected throughout the day on Monday as a result of the disaster.

Absorbent pads have been placed and are continuing to be placed along the shorelines surrounding the spill, since Conroy said most of the oil is in the soil, but has “subsequently seeped into the water.”

As for how well this is working is hard to say.

“The current’s pretty quick, but they’re picking up some of it because the product is lighter than the water,” said Conroy.

Alan Drury, a spokesperson for Con Ed, said he didn’t know how long it would take to clean up the oil, but said booms (barriers) that have been placed in the water have helped to contain it.

He confirmed that the spill began on Sunday when a transformer ruptured at the Farragut substation in Brooklyn, near the East River.

In an official statement, the company also said:

“A transformer containing approximately 37,000 gallons of insulating oil used with electrical equipment, failed on Sunday May 7 at 12:23 p.m., causing much of the oil to be released within the station property in addition to the East River. The equipment failure also caused a system voltage dip that impacted the MTA’s signaling systems on Sunday, resulting in a disruption to some train service.

“Con Edison responded immediately, placing boom, absorbents and skimmers in the river. Our own employees and environmental contractors are working on the cleanup, and we are working cooperatively with the U.S. Coast Guard, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and other agencies.  We continue to assess the volume of oil that migrated to the East River, and how much oil remains in the ground on our property.”

The Coast Guard has issued reduced speed restrictions for vessels operating in the area and Drury said so far those operating boats have been cooperative.

“We are taking all actions to contain and clean up the oil as safely and as quickly as possible,” Con Ed also said.

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