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City tests for asbestos after pipe blast

Emergency workers secured the site of a manhole blast on Otis Street in Boston yesterday. Emergency workers secured the site of a manhole blast on Otis Street in Boston yesterday. (JODI HILTON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

A thick plume of steam spewed from a manhole yesterday after a pipe under a downtown Boston street apparently ruptured. Tests confirmed that asbestos had been released along with the steam, but city officials said the contamination appeared to be limited.

The steam was released from a 14-inch pipe owned by Trigen Boston Energy Corp. on Otis Street near Summer Street, said Larry Plitch, general counsel for the Trigen Cos. Plitch said some of the older steam pipes in the city are insulated with asbestos.

Plitch said tests indicated that asbestos was in a brown material that was deposited on cars and buildings when the steam rushed out of the manhole. He said the air in the area was still being tested.

James W. Hunt, the city's chief of environmental and energy services, said tests would be conducted outside and inside buildings.

He said officials believed the contamination was confined to a "very limited area."

"We're doing all the appropriate testing to ensure that the public is protected," he said. "We'll have further data and analysis through the night."

Transportation Commissioner Thomas J. Timlin said that cleanup would continue through the night and that streets in the area might still be closed this morning, as they were during yesterday evening's rush hour.

Scott Salman, a Fire Department spokesman, said the rupture was reported around noon. Four people were decontaminated. No one was injured.

The cause of the pipe rupture was not immediately known. A Trigen spokeswoman said it appeared likely that an expansion joint had failed.

Lance Ahern, chief executive of Trigen Cos., said: "We are running a safe operation. We inspect our system on a daily basis. . . . There'll be a full investigation."

George Charles, 25, of Chelsea, who works in a nearby building, said he looked out his window and saw several manhole covers emitting steam. Charles said that a worker pulled the cover off one.

"They pulled off the manhole, and the steam was coming up over the tops of the buildings," he said.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said the rupture was "another example . . . of the need for regulatory oversight of steam utilities."

He has been pushing legislation to allow the state Department of Public Utilities to regulate pipes.

Problems with steam pipes have caused a spate of minor injuries, city officials have said. There is little government oversight of the 22-mile network of pipes that helps heat and cool 240 buildings.

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