Early in the summer, on an evening run in a little-used park along the west bank of the Anacostia River loosely referred to as the Navy Yard Channel, I encountered a hazard that would be bad enough during the daytime. In the darkness of night, in a meagerly lit area, it was even worse.
Can’t see what I’m referring to? Neither could I. I deliberately took a photo generally indicative of the level of visibility at that time of night, before my pupils had dilated enough to adjust to the light. But there’s a bit of a reflection in the lower right corner that should shed some light on the issue at hand (pun fully intended). And if that doesn’t do the trick, here’s a clearer snapshot where I deliberately adjusted the aperture on my photo lens to improve the light level.
Not only is this dangling wire a tripping hazard, but there’s a reasonable possibility that it’s an active, live cable, typically a safe distance overhead. Higher than average winds over the previous thirty-six hours may have destabilized some utility lines. I can’t imagine the conditions that caused this dangling cable would have taken place much more than 36 hours prior, or the utility provider would have intervened already. And while Washington DC has buried more of its utility lines than most American cities, this is clearly not such a location. Though this isn’t a hugely traveled path (particularly at night), it does get occasional use for recreational fishing, and it links to more frequently used portions of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail as well as the Washington Yacht Club and Anacostia Community Boathouse. Needless to say, it’s a bad idea from a liability standpoint to leave a cable in this condition.
Fortunately, the odds that this dangling wire poses a risk for electrocution seem a wee bit lower, thanks to a warning sign.
Pepco, the electric provider for DC and the surrounding Maryland suburbs, has surveyed the wire and determined that it is not their property. They’re off the hook. And they’ve warned passers-by what anyone with a reasonable instinct should already know: keep clear. The obvious question remains: if the dangling wire doesn’t belong to Pepco, who does it belong to, and what type of conduit is it? Then there’s the less obvious question: if it doesn’t belong to Pepco, how did they know to inspect and flag it as such? One can assume this prominent utility company has a detection system for any failures or compromises in its network, but such a system obviously isn’t going to catch issues on a utility line that doesn’t belong to them. Did that Pepco inspection crew happen to notice this while already out on the field, or does Pepco send individuals to survey their full transmission network on a regular basis? And what’s the meaning of those icons representing telephone and television? Are they hinting that this is a some other telecomm line?
Obviously I’m not going (nor do I expect) to get answers. On my next visit a few weeks later, I saw no further evidence of the cable. It’s possible it was never any greater than a tripping threat, and I’m making much ado about nothing. But it does evoke an issue I’ve reflected upon many years ago on this blog: the greater prevalence of overhead cables in urban areas throughout the United States, compared to many other developed countries, particularly in Western Europe. While I acknowledged the aesthetic detriments to overhead cables, my ultimate assessment was that the return on investment was not always justifiable, particularly given the lower density and sprawling nature of many American cities. Buried cables may not cause black-outs during violent storms from fallen tries, but underground conditions (such as seismic activity) can still cause service disruptions, and they’re often much more difficult to detect or to repair quickly than overhead wires. Nonetheless, underground cables certainly preclude hazards like the one here along the Anacostia River in DC.
I’m not sure how common this is, but it’s interesting to contemplate how quickly an inspection team is there on the spot to address the issue, even if simply by saying “it’s not our responsibility” to save them service phone calls (since most people seeing this cable would presume it belongs to Pepco). Given the effort to inspect and exonerate themselves, would situations like this prompt Pepco to consider burying a little bit more of the electrical grid in DC? What about elsewhere in the country? I suspect it’ll take a few more tripping injuries to get us there. At least that’s better than electrocutions.