INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – It could take up to three months to determine what caused an underground explosion in downtown Indianapolis Wednesday, officials from Indianapolis Power and Light said. IPL has hired the company that manufactured the damaged equipment to help determine why it failed.
The explosion Wednesday afternoon right outside Circle Center Mall knocked out power to several businesses on South Meridian Street. Power was restored early Wednesday evening.
IPL said Thursday that crews cut power to the area following a series of transformer explosions in an underground vault that caused smoke and loud noises to scatter crowds. Businesses reported windows shaken by the explosions, but no one was hurt.
IPL says its internal inspection records show the vault was last inspected on February 14, 2012. Under new guidelines adopted in 2011, it was due to be inspected again within the next six months.
Aside from some road salt corrosion that was repaired, the equipment was declared fully compliant during the 2012 inspection, according to IPL spokesman Brad Riley.
Riley said the company remains uncertain what changed so dramatically to cause an explosion less than two years later.
“It’s really hard to tell,” Riley said. “There will be an ongoing investigation. We want to make sure we do a thorough investigation. We’ve actually included a third party to come in to help with that investigation, and we want to get to the root cause of what happened here. So, we don’t expect any results from that investigation for probably two to three months.”
It’s not the first time the utility has mounted such an investigation.
Records show at least 13 other underground explosions have occurred in downtown Indianapolis over the last 10 years.
But, IPL said this one was different than most others.
“Incidents that we’ve seen in the past that have involved manholes have to do with cables, or cable connection, and have not been equipment specific. This was a specific piece of equipment that failed,” Riley said.
It’s called an underground network protector, and it acts like a large-scale circuit breaker.
Late Thursday, IPL confirmed it’s hired the company that made the part, Eaton Manufacturing, to try to figure out what went wrong. Eaton’s U.S. headquarters is based in Cleveland, but the company also has offices in Indianapolis, according to online records.
It’s the same approach the utility took following a series of manhole explosions downtown.
A 2011 report commissioned by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, and prepared by an independent firm, found “an immediate need to improve the process by which IPL finds, documents and remediates failures in its downtown electrical system.”
IPL issued a 46-page response to the report, which includes remediation steps it intended to take.
In the three years since that report was released, IPL says it’s made changes, including an increase to the frequency of inspections inside vaults and manholes. Network protectors are inspected at least every three years, and manholes are inspected at least every five years. Both include the addition of an infrared camera.
The report opens with a “key point,” observed by IPL: “our downtown network is safe and reliable.”
Consumer watchdog Kerwin Olson doesn’t buy it.
“This latest incident is definitely eye opening, and should be of great concern,” said Olson, Executive Director of Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, which tracks utilities across the state.
“The fact that this problem is occurring again is really indicative of a larger problem that Indianapolis Power and Light has not come before the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission for a base rate case in over two decades. Not only has the public, and the commission not had the opportunity to examine IPL’s bookkeeping, but we’ve not had the opportunity to look at the entirety of IPL’s system–what maintenance have they done and not done, and those kinds of things in over 20 years. And, that’s a great concern.”
I-Team 8 requested copies of those maintenance records, but has not received them.
“It’s very, very tough to get information from the utilities to begin with. And, then it’s even harder to fight to make that information public. Utility companies have very broad latitude in claiming confidentiality and in claiming proprietary information, which is another problem, because we are talking about public money here. These are ratepayer dollars, which in our minds, is the same thing as taxpayer dollars. We definitely need more transparency and more oversight.”
A spokesperson for Indiana’s Utility Regulatory Commission declined a request for an on-camera interview, but told I-Team 8 that the agency met with IPL on July 11, 2014 to sign off on a new “asset management plan,” and discuss its implementation.
“The Commission is coordinating with the utility to learn more about what happened,” said IURC Communications Manager Natalie Derrickson. “IPL has been instructed to develop a report on the root cause of the event with preliminary results in a few days and a more in-depth report in a few months. The additional time is due to testing, etc. At this time, the Commission does not anticipate issuing a report on this particular incident.”
In the meantime, the transformers in the damaged electric vault on South Meridian are back in service. The network protector was “looped out” of service until it can be inspected, Riley said.
IPL says the location is perfectly safe for pedestrians and nearby businesses.
“If there were concerns about that, we would proactively be taking some of those precautionary steps to either replace or maintain our system,” Riley said. “Safety is our number one priority. We think the schedule we currently have is the right schedule. We’ll continue our maintenance program, as is, unless the investigation turns up something different.”