Embattled Concord Steam faces fire, life safety code violations

Last modified: 12/28/2015 2:08:37 AM
As Concord Steam Corp. struggles to stay alive, the state is cracking down on code violations at its dilapidated plant on Pleasant Street.

During a Dec. 11 inspection, the state fire marshal’s office found 14 violations of fire and life safety codes at the plant. According to a letter documenting the inspection, five of those violations were found to pose “an immediate danger” and were required to be corrected as soon as possible.

Among the most serious were a lack of illuminated exit signs and emergency lighting, as well as “deadbolts and bars” blocking at least one exit from the building.

“Those are life safety issues that put at risk the people that work there,” said Mike Connor, the deputy commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Administrative Services. “Those are things that need to be taken care of.”

Peter Bloomfield, president of Concord Steam, said his company is working to address the list of concerns; in particular, he said, more exit markings and lighting are being added to the plant. But he denied Concord Steam’s plant is a threat to its employees.

“We certainly don’t believe it’s unsafe,” Bloomfield said. “It’s not about to be shut down because of any particular unsafe issues. We’ve never had anybody hurt in any of the minor fires that we’ve had.”

Concord Steam is in danger of shutting down, but not just because of code violations at its plant.

The utility heats about 180 downtown buildings for roughly 100 clients. With 28 buildings on steam, the state represents 40 percent of the company’s business and is its largest account.

In part because of the poor condition of Concord Steam’s plant, the utility’s rate for steam is more expensive than most. The plant itself dates to the mid-1800s, and most of its equipment has been used since the 1950s or 1960s. The company is planning a sweeping renovation, which could reduce current prices by 35 to 40 percent.

But the utility has been working unsuccessfully for eight years to reduce its rates. So the state and the city are both exploring options for alternative energy sources.

Concord Steam is currently planning a $17 million renovation, but to secure the necessary financing, it needs the state in particular to sign a long-term contract.

“If the state does not commit to stay, then we would really have to look hard as to whether the company can survive or not,” Bloomfield said.

Connor said the state is reviewing six proposals for energy improvements to its buildings, which would likely include switching from steam heat. A decision should come next month, he said.

The city agreed to defer its own conversion until the end of this year, but that deadline is approaching.

“I was ready to go,” City Manager Tom Aspell said. “I’m afraid the winter’s coming, and who knows what’s going to happen? The council wanted to wait.”

A representative of the Public Utilities Commission did not return a call for comment about the utility’s future.

Bloomfield said his company has been in a holding pattern, waiting for the state to make its decision. In the meantime, he now has to fix these code violations.

If the utility doesn’t complete the necessary fixes, Connor said the state – the technical owner of the property – would make repairs itself and send the bill to Concord Steam.

Fire Chief Dan Andrus said his crews have been called to the plant seven times in the last two years. Four of those calls were for building fires. In April, firefighters responded to a false alarm triggered by the smell of smoke.

Andrus said he has been working with the state fire marshal’s office.

“Anything related to exiting is pretty huge, and they have some problems with doors,” Andrus said. “Anytime someone can’t get out of a space, especially with a facility that’s had the history they’ve had with the working fires, they really need to be able to get people out quickly.”

One violation was for fire reporting.

“An active fire was discovered at the time of inspection,” the inspector noted in the report. “Report all fires to the Concord Fire Department.”

Bloomfield brushed off that comment, calling it “silly.” A handful of sawdust was smoking, he said, but it wasn’t an active fire.

“They have their job to do, and they have concerns,” Bloomfield said of the state fire marshal’s office. “We’re listening to them. There’s some we disagree with, and some of the ones we’re working on.”

Bloomfield says the company employs 15 to 17 people, depending on the season. Not all work in the plant or during the same shift.

While Bloomfield said he is working to address the problems cited by the state, the planned renovation would fix many of them.

“If the state is willing to stay, we can renovate the facility to reduce our steam costs and upgrade the facility and make it more efficient,” he said. “That’s really going to be in the state’s hands right now.”

Moving to Main Street

Just in time for your New Year’s resolutions, Concord’s Main Street is home to a new fitness studio.

Dinah Martin has been teaching pilates and yoga for more than two years, and this fall, she moved Studio 603 to a new location at 48 S. Main St. In the bigger space, she has expanded her offerings to include barre classes as well.

Martin was running her business out of the Concord Community Arts Center, located in the old Rumford School on Thorndike Street. She was ready to grow, however.

“Now, I have more rooms available to do more classes,” she said. Martin has two other instructors in the building: Katie Behner and Lisa Womack.

Martin said she was also attracted to the Main Street redesign; she has seen a boost in her business since moving closer to the main downtown drag.

“I’ve fielded so many more calls,” Martin said. “That’s exactly what I was looking for – having a presence on Main Street.”

Classes run 45 to 55 minutes. Rates and schedules are available at pilatesstudio603.com.

“You need to put your health first, and exercising is something you can really do for yourself to make yourself feel good,” Martin said. “It’s an instant pick-me-up.”

See you next year

As 2015 comes to a close, Concord’s city offices and library will observe holiday hours this week.

Those offices will close at 4:30 p.m. Thursday for New Year’s Eve, and they will reopen Monday morning.

Concord Public Library will also close at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, and it will be closed Friday in observance of New Year’s Day. It will, however, open Saturday and Sunday for regular hours.

New Year’s Day is also a city holiday for trash and recycling. The normal route for Friday curbside pickup will be collected Saturday. For more information, visit concordnh.gov.

Best wishes for 2016!

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321, mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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