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Indiana regulators open investigation into Indianapolis power company's manhole blasts

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INDIANAPOLIS — Utility regulators ordered an investigation into an Indianapolis power company's network failures Friday, a day after a series of underground explosions sent manhole covers hurtling through the air in a heavily traveled section of the city's downtown.

The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission convened a brief emergency meeting to announce the investigation. Similar probes were ordered after blasts in 2011, including one that rattled the Statehouse, and last year.

The latest incident occurred Thursday, when underground explosions caused by electrical arcing shot manhole covers into the air at a busy downtown Indianapolis intersection. The incident forced evacuations, cut power to hundreds of customers and raised concerns about safety as the city prepares to host the men's Final Four next month.

Indianapolis Power & Light Co. officials insist the network is safe and reliable. But the IURC said in a statement Friday that it has "concern over the persistence of such events" and believes it's appropriate to investigate IPL's investment in its network, along with its operation and maintenance protocols.

IPL spokeswoman Brandi Davis-Handy said the company would "fully comply" with the commission's investigation and use information gleaned from Thursday's incident to enhance efforts to maintain the system.

"The safety of our employees, customers and this community remains our top priority," she said.

IPL vice president of customer operations Joe Bentley said Thursday that the utility has replaced 357 of its roughly 1,000 manhole covers — which can weigh up to 160 pounds each — with ones designed to lift 4 to 6 inches when under pressure, then sit back down instead of going airborne. He said the utility is replacing 50 to 100 covers a year but might have to accelerate that pace.

He said IPL hadn't replaced more covers yet because of concerns about how they will hold up long-term and whether crews could have difficulty accessing those manholes.

"We want to make sure we don't create a bigger problem by putting a thousand of these out there that we can't get in," he said.

More than a dozen similar incidents have occurred in Indianapolis over the last decade. In 2005, at least three blasts occurred in a nine-day period, including one near the Indiana Statehouse that injured three people and damaged a bookstore. Those blasts were blamed on a series of short-circuits in underground utility lines caused by heavy rains and freezing and thawing.

In 2011, IPL blamed electrical shorts for a half-dozen explosions that sent manhole covers flying, damaged vehicles and raised concerns about the safety of those planning to attend the 2012 Super Bowl.

The IURC has scheduled an April 2 conference to establish the parameters of its investigation.

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