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City, NStar on hunt for power leaks

Electrocution of three dogs spurred effort

Boston city inspectors have found and fixed 62 streetlights that were leaking minor levels of electric current, according to a report being released today by a joint city-NStar safety task force formed after three dog electrocutions blamed on ''stray voltage."

Meanwhile, NStar, the electric utility that serves the city, is promising to check 3,000 locations of demolished buildings in Boston by the end of December to make sure the electric lines that formerly served them have been correctly shut off.

An improperly secured electric line once connected to a Charlestown home was blamed for the February 2004 death of the Labrador retriever Oscar, one of three Boston dogs killed by stray voltage since 2000.

Facing public furor and anxiety over electric hazards in city streets, Mayor Thomas M. Menino and NStar chief executive Thomas J. May launched an effort to secure power lines in March, days after a year-old boxer, Cassius, was electrocuted while being walked by his 13-year-old owner. Investigations later showed that electricity leaking from a decommissioned streetlight was to blame. An NStar inspector had checked just 24 feet from the Allston site last year but found no sign of trouble.

Since then, according to the report, city and NStar technicians have inspected more than 110,000 pieces of equipment, including streetlights, manhole covers, fire call boxes, and other gear.

After more than 4,000 checks, NStar inspectors have found stray voltage at three locations, none of it coming from utility-controlled equipment.

Problem streetlights represented less than 0.1 percent of the 93,000 checked.

''Anecdotally, we didn't find any that really could have posed a significant risk, but from the mayor's standpoint, any problem is one problem too many," said James W. Hunt III, the city's chief of environmental and energy services.

The report urges city and NStar officials to reinspect all possible sources of stray voltage every three years. ''While we're confident that our streets are safe, our findings show that we need to remain vigilant," Hunt said.

The head of NStar's biggest union called the task force a success. Gary P. Sullivan, president of Local 369 of the Utility Workers Union of America, which cited concerns about poor maintenance and safety as a key reason for a 16-day strike this spring, said: ''Good work was done. I have to commend the city, the mayor, and NStar for stepping up and admitting there was a problem and addressing it."

Stray voltage is a particular problem in winter, when puddles containing salt used to melt snow and ice can conduct electricity that would harmlessly dissipate into the ground at other times of year. Bare-pawed animals are prone to shocks, but humans in rubber-soled shoes normally are not.

In the report, NStar promises to finish inspecting former streetlight locations by Aug. 19 and to check 22,000 manholes by Oct. 1.

Because the city assumed ownership of several thousand streetlights from NStar in recent years, city and utility officials have agreed to pool available records in hopes of finding and fixing any trouble spots.

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com.

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