Under Pressure: Steam Pipe System Draws Scrutiny

Correction: The video above and an earlier text version of this story said that Paul Hammel was injured in an accident in 2007. The accident actually occurred in 1997.

Paul Hammell can still hear the roar of the steam rushing toward him.

“The steam went right through my jeans, and burned my legs up to about right here,” he said, pointing to his upper thigh. “And it was no skin on my legs. Just melting, melted away.”

Back in 1997, an apprentice at age 28, Hammell was working on a steam pipe system renovation project at the University of Massachusetts’ main campus in Amherst. He was in a manhole when two blasts of steam from a pipe rupture covered his body in third-degree burns. A jury found the school and the engineering firm negligent and awarded Hammell nearly $393,000. The judge reduced the amount to $100,000, in compliance with the damages cap by the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act.

Boston and Cambridge have a large steam system as well. It is separate from the system in Amherst, run by Veolia North America. The more than 25 miles of steam pipes provide heat and hot water for high rises, hospitals and biotech firms in the two neighboring cities.

But the NBC10 Boston Investigators found that the state almost never investigates steam pipe leaks, ruptures or other incidents.

Veolia told us in a statement that the company “…actively records maintenance activities performed across the district. These records can be accessed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities at any time. Veolia reports any abnormal conditions affecting public safety to the DPU in accordance with the regulations.”

Veolia is currently tangled in a lawsuit with a telecom company that accuses Veolia of failing to maintain its infrastructure. It's a claim Veolia denies.

All that leads some city leaders to worry that pressure could be building underneath our streets.

From New York to California, steam pipe failures have killed at least 14 people and injured dozens more.

“They’re largely invisible and something people take for granted until there is a disaster,” said Joseph Kane, a senior research associate with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

But steam is a strong clean energy option, and some advocates say the state should look at options to expand the system.

Galen Nelson, the senior director of innovation and industry support with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, lists cost savings, resilience, greenhouse gas reductions as some of the benefits of a steam heat infrastructure system.

But others wonder if there is enough oversight on the system we already have.

“I encourage more renewable energy resources to be built,” Boston City Councilor Matt O’Malley said. “You know steam is certainly much more preferable in most cases, and district energy is a heck of a lot more preferable to traditional fossil fuels. But, we need to make sure that the pipes and the infrastructure is safe.”

It’s difficult to get a true sense of what’s happening beneath the streets.

The state has only been regulating steam since 2013, after a series of incidents pushed then Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to demand more oversight.

Between 2013 and 2016, Veolia has reported 485 leaks, ruptures and other incidents which caused $3.3 million in damage to city and private property, according to state documents.

“It’s old. It’s quite extensive,” Kane said. “It’s highly fragmented and it’s difficult to stay ahead of all these repairs.”

Repairs and failures include old and failing expansion joints, broken pipes shutting down businesses, residents without heat or hot water, and some levels of asbestos released into the air.

“We are indirectly paying for these leaks every time an ambulance is called or a fire truck, road work, or the fact that we may need to have flagmen or police detail to redirect traffic, we are paying for this,” O’Malley said.

The NBC10 Boston Investigators requested an interview to ask Veolia exactly how they maintain the system and prevent failures, but they declined. In their statement they said that Veolia is committed to safety and reliability in the delivery of so-called "green steam."

“In support of that business, Veolia invests in safety, training, preventative maintenance and capital improvements, and instills in all of its employees a safety culture,” Veolia said in its statement. “We have dedicated service crews available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, to ensure safe and reliable service. Our customers - such as hospitals, universities, biotech businesses and others - turn to us because we have a proven track record of safe and reliable operation.” It went on, “Over the last 10 years, Veolia has invested in excess of $100 million into the Boston-Cambridge system, including new piping and manholes, new expansion joints and system controls.”

A spokesperson from the Department of Public Utilities also declined an interview.

A subsequent records request for DPU for all of their investigation reports yielded just one.

“It troubles me greatly,” O’Malley said.

Level 3 Communications in 2016 sued Veolia, accusing it of failing to maintain the system in such a manner that leaks are causing overheated manholes.

The lawsuit centers on a particular manhole in Chinatown. Level 3 claimed Veolia failed to fix a steam leak near a manhole they share, making it so hot they had to ban employees from doing work in it.

They submitted an email from a subcontractor which warned workers that if they went into the manhole, “...a very unpleasant death would be the most likely outcome.”

In response to questions about the lawsuit, Veolia in a statement pointed to companies like Level three that “have dug underground trenches, placing plastic non-insulated conduits in areas located in close proximity to the pre-existing steam system now owned by Veolia Energy North America.”

Veolia said water from “other networks’ leaks or heavy rain” touches the steam system and creates vapor.

“This secondary vapor originates from these outside influences, and is not the result of a steam leak. Veolia Energy North America is vigorously defending against the property damage claims brought by Level 3 and denies responsibility for the claims,” Veolia said in its statement.

The Cambridge City Council called for a system-wide review late last year, and O’Malley said he is considering doing the same.

“It’s terrifying,” he said. “I think most deaths would be unpleasant, but I think that it's qualified as such recognizes that these are very, very dangerous.”

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