Not again? Power pipeline project delayed

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | This drill bit, used to cut through rocks to open a passage under the harbor between Shelter Island and Greenport for a LIPA cable, broke last August. It was the deciding blow in ending the project after months of delays.

The old adage that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce, is coming true with the LIPA cable project.

Islanders shouldn’t expect any work to continue for months on the $9 million project to provide backup power cabling between Shelter Island and Greenport. That word came from Supervisor Jim Dougherty, responding to a question at the December 10 Town Board work session, who said there were no current plans to resume the project anytime soon. Islanders had been told work would resume next month, but that’s off the table. Temporary generators, removed this autumn, will be to be brought back in the spring of 2014 to provide backup power should a lone and aging cable fail, Mr. Dougherty said.

A LIPA spokeswoman on Monday confirmed that the company is “still evaluating” the project, which was to dig a tunnel from Crescent Beach under the harbor to Greenport for a power cable. The project became a long-running comedy of errors, when LIPA’s contractor, Bortech, missed every deadline set for it from Memorial Day to Independence Day to Labor Day. The curtain finally came down when Bortech’s chief executive, Robert Titanic, was told by LIPA in October that his company was fired.

Mr. Dougherty then announced that LIPA would hire a new contractor and work would resume shortly after the new year. But now that plan has been scuttled.

Mr. Dougherty tried to put a good face on the numerous delays at the work session, saying  that the work had been succeeding until the drill bit digging the tunnel broke in late August, leaving the cabling short of its mark.

Highway Superintendent Jay Card Jr. had another take. “They made good on everything except finishing the job,” Mr. Card said.

At the time of the Bortech firing, LIPA officials said the wait until January was, at least in part, linked to the time when PSE&G, a New Jersey-based company, would be assuming management of the LIPA systems on a 10-year contract. Since the deal with PSE&G was only sealed in October, LIPA officials wanted to give the holding company time to take charge and to get new bids out on the project.

Mr. Dougherty speculated then that management decisions might be more difficult to secure during the interim period in which PSE&G was taking over the utility company’s operations.

“I emphatically stated, under any scenario, they have to be done by April 30,” Mr. Dougherty said in October, referring to April 30, 2014.

Last week he said he was firm about not having disruptions on the Island during next summer.

Existing cables were damaged during Superstorm Sandy in late October, 2012, and concerns were immediately raised that the Island could be left with only one cable, resulting in possible power outages during the peak summer season of 2013. Plans called for beginning work to replace the backup cable in April 2013 with an estimated completion date by mid May or, certainly, by Memorial Day.

But completion dates kept slipping by as work stretched through the summer. By August, two attempts to snake new cabling through a tunnel had failed, but a third attempt seemed promising. Then came word that the cabling that had made it most of the way through the tunnel had suffered another hitch — this time, a major one. The drill rig had broken short of the Greenport shore. Bortech was faced with finding a way to remove the broken drill bit.

Then there was a spill of non-toxic material into the water and it had to be removed before efforts could resume on removing the broken equipment, which never happened.