IPL: System is safe but can’t guarantee explosions won’t happen again

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (March 19, 2015) — Indianapolis Power & Light Company (IPL) is still working to restore service to customers after a pair of underground explosions rocked downtown this morning.

About 400 customers were affected by the outage when cables in the network short circuited.

Many of these customers will be restored by approximately 4:30 pm, but about 150 customers in the four-block area of Walnut Street to Michigan Street and from Senate Avenue to Illinois Street will remain without power into the weekend.

IPL is in the process of contacting these residential and business customers by phone to share restoration information. The utility’s also bringing in generators.

North Street and Capitol Avenue is where the explosions happened this morning. Two manhole covers flew off, right across the street from each other. It’s the second high-profile incident Indianapolis Power & Light has dealt with just this week.

“I know these occurrences get a lot of media attention, but our system is safe and a very great system” said Joe Bentley, Senior Vice President for Customer Operations at IPL.

Thursday, the utility was put in a position yet again of explaining how two manhole covers exploded in downtown Indianapolis as rush hour hit, just before 7 a.m.

There have been at least 14 underground blasts or fires since 2010. The first sparked a huge fire outside Charlie and Barney’s restaurant. There were four different incidents in 2011. Some of them blew manhole covers off their bases, and others rattled downtown windows.

Four more happened in 2012. There were none in 2013, but we saw two last year in March and August. Not all of these were connected to IPL’s systems, however.

“It is very concerning to us as well,” said Mike Holtsclaw, IPL’s Director of Engineering.

The utility says Thursday morning there was a short circuit in 120 volt cables below the street. The cables burned, created carbon monoxide, and two manhole covers blew, exploding feet into the air. IPL said another two manhole covers nearby dislodged.

IPL said the electrical damage along roughly three blocks is extensive. Charred wires were visible even from the street above.

“Our focus right now is to get the area isolated and services restored to these buildings. And then, we’ll start focusing on what we have to do to make permanent repairs,” said Holtsclaw.

Thursday’s incident comes nearly three days after a high voltage transformer exploded below Massachusetts Avenue, sending flames and smoke shooting up from a grate on Monday night.

IPL said the two situations are not related.

“I was the first one on the scene from IPL at Mass Ave. The two items are completely unrelated,” said Bentley.

IPL said there are roughly 1,000 manholes downtown, with 357 of them the swivel-lock kind. Most of those are located in heavy pedestrian-trafficked areas like Lucas Oil Stadium. They pop up a few inches to relieve pressure and are designed to not explode. The specialized devices cost between $600 and $700 more per manhole, according to IPL.

The utility said they’re replacing 50 to 100 manholes with the swivel-lock kind each year, but when asked why all haven’t been replaced, executives said it may not be practical.

“We want to make sure we’re not creating a bigger problem by putting 1000 of these out to that we still can’t get into. That’s our concern,” said Bentley.

“IPL is doing everything they can to find out what happened here and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, “I think a general preventative check is something warranted at this point.”

Still, with the Final Four coming and the eyes of the nation, IPL gave no guarantees on Thursday that explosions won’t happen again.

“I can’t guarantee again, because the fact is the laws of physics here will prevail, but what you will find is we have a very safe system,” said Bentley.

The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission said Thursday they’re opening an emergency public hearing on Friday to discuss IPL’s infrastructure issues. The meeting will be held at 101 W. Washington Street, Room 222. It starts at 10:30 a.m.

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