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Cable work stops; Employees honor UI picket line for now

By Luther Turmelle, New Haven Register, 21 May 2002

NEW HAVEN—The five-day old walkout by 360 unionized United Illuminating Co. workers has—temporarily at least—put a stop to a portion of the controversial cross-Sound cable power project. Since the strike by Local 470-1 of the Utility Workers of America began last Thursday, unionized construction workers building the structure that will house the New Haven end of the undersea power cable have refused to cross the picket lines. Local 470-1 is picketing the construction site because a subsidiary of UI's corporate parent—UIL Holdings—has invested in the undersea cable, which will link Connecticut's power grid with the one in Long Island.

Work on the cross-Sound project continues underneath Long Island Sound, said Rita Bowlby, a spokeswoman for Transenergie, the HydroQuebec subsidiary that is building the line through a related company. Bowlby confirmed, however, that work on the land-based portion of the project has stopped.

The union construction workers have been honoring the picket line, she said.

A Farmington-area firm—McPhee Construction—is overseeing the work on the Waterfront Street project, Bowlby said. The project is being built upon land owned by a UIL Holdings subsidiary.

But Jim Murray, president of Local 470-1, says UI is playing games with the union in its efforts to get the project restarted.

Murray contends that Sunday overnight into Monday, construction crews at the cable terminus project hastily constructed a makeshift new gate for unionized construction workers to enter. Local 470-1 picketers discovered the new gate before dawn, leading to what Murray described as a Mexican stand-off between the strikers and the unionized construction workers.

The other unions eventually agreed to honor our picket lines, but it was really tense there for a while, he said. It was like West Side Story.

Murray contends that UI is trying to force a confrontation with the construction unions in an effort break the strikers' resolve.

If it comes to blows? we're ready for that, but this sort of thing is like death to the unions, he said.

We're supposed to support each other.

UI spokeswoman Myra Stanley said forcing a confrontation between the unions wasn't the company's intention at all.

We erected the new gate so that parties that are not part of this strike can enter and leave in a more orderly fashion, Stanley said. It was never our intent to hide anything from anybody.

Murray said the union has contacted city officials in New Haven to determine whether the utility had right—and the proper permits—to build a new entry road to the site.

While the land-based portion of work on the cross-Sound cable has stalled, the ship that is laying the cable reached Shoreham, N.Y. early Monday. Work to bury the line beneath the sea floor is expected to begin in New Haven Harbor today, Bowlby said.

The first half of the installation process went smoothly, according to the company, with the Dutch ship that unspooled the line traversing the Sound in less than four days.

Work permits issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers require that the $130 million job be done within the next 10 days to prevent harm to marine life spawning and migrating in Long Island Sound during the summer.

Cross-Sound officials said that they expect all work to be done by the end of the week, and if not, by the DEP deadline.

Bowlby dismissed questions leveled by state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal about a chemical spill that occurred during cable work May 1.

Early that morning Bentonite, a clay-like substance used to line and fill the 30-inch-wide, 2,000-foot-long conduit leading the line from the East Shore to the harbor channel spilled into the harbor, covering a field 100 feet by 150 feet.

Both the DEP and the Army Corps said the spill was cleaned up.

This is an old story, Bowlby said. There is no concern. There was a release, it was contained according to the plan, Bowlby said.