‘Embarrassing’ Red Line safety breakdown in Ashmont Tunnel, emails say

MBTA safety officials were not immediately notified of a decision to shut down a work site Saturday inside the Red Line’s Ashmont Tunnel because of air quality concerns, a situation that one employee described as “embarrassing,” according to internal emails obtained by the Herald.

The work stoppage at the Ashmont Tunnel comes only days into a two-week partial shutdown of the Red Line for crews to make track repairs to eliminate slow zones. But a string of Sunday emails sent between MTBA safety officials shows the project is already running into potential communication issues.

In one email, MBTA Safety Engineering Deputy Director John Murray said he attends two update calls every day that require him to raise and report any issues or concerns the agency’s safety department may have with the Red Line project.

He said he learned of the Ashmont Tunnel situation on a 7 a.m. call Sunday, according to the email.

“There was an incident last night in the Ashmont Tunnel where a decision was made to shut down the work zone because of reported elevated carbon monoxide levels. Unfortunately, this issue was not reported to the (operations control center) or our department, an embarrassing situation that I had no knowledge of for today’s 7 a.m. meeting,” Murray said in a mass email to the MBTA’s safety department.

Murray said, “safety must be notified of any and all occurrences” no matter how minor so safety officials “can determine the level of our involvement and work to mitigate any harm to the safety and well-being of everyone who is working on the surge projects.”

In another email, MBTA Deputy Chief Safety Officer Dennis Lytton said low oxygen or high carbon monoxide levels “can get dangerous very quickly.”

“The absence of notification to safety of a dangerous environmental condition can’t be repeated going forward. Also, the lack of accounting for ventilation needs by Middlesex for work inside the Ashmont Tunnel, a well-known ‘legacy’ issue in this tunnel with no mechanical ventilation system, is very concerning to me,” Lytton said in an email to other T officials, referencing the contractor on the project, Middlesex Corporation.

MBTA spokesperson Lisa Battiston said as the situation unfolded inside the Ashmont Tunnel, work was immediately suspended.

“Top MBTA managers, including the chief of infrastructure, were in the field at the time, and they were addressing the matter in real-time,” Battiston said in a statement. “During the 16-day project, daily information is shared at three conference calls each day involving multiple MBTA departments, including the safety department and the control center.”

Middlesex Corporation began heavy construction in the Ashmont Tunnel with multiple pieces of diesel powered equipment similar to ones in other areas where exhaust fans are in place, according to the MBTA.

But this section of the Ashmont Tunnel did not have exhaust fans and extra ventilation equipment is needed for work to proceed safely, the agency said.

Battiston said air quality monitors were placed within the Red Line tunnel before work began. After several hours of work Saturday, an “air quality concern” was reported related to heavy construction within the Ashmont Tunnel and the work crew was relocated, Battiston said.

“At that time, the MBTA’s safety team temporarily suspended the work taking place in this area until a full assessment of the air quality could be conducted, that the air quality was normal, and that it was safe to resume work,” Battiston said in a statement. “The contractor is working with the safety department to address the air quality issues within the tunnel and provide a ventilation plan in order to optimize the construction efforts.”

Occupational Health and Safety Deputy Director James Marcello said in one Sunday email that the MBTA talked “during the last major surge” with Middlesex Corporation about the need to bring in portable ventilation to keep carbon monoxide levels low.

“Middlesex is an experienced contractor and has dealt with this issue in the past while working in the tunnels. There really is no excuse for this to be happening again. They have their own safety people that monitor their work activity,” Marcello said in an email.

Middlesex Corporation did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent to a general email address listed on their website. Calls to their office went unanswered.

Battiston said crews have continued working in the area with battery-operated tools, “which has allowed the work to safely continue while the permanent ventilation plan is developed.”

Murray, in another email Sunday morning, said Middlesex would stop work on the Ashmont Tunnel “until the ventilation situation is resolved.”

“I will recommend that (occupational health and safety) pay a visit to the tunnel to evaluate air quality in general and get a reading on O2 and CO levels before any fans are turned on. This is important because even after the surge, there will undoubtedly be night work happening in the tunnel in the future,” Murray said in a Sunday email.

Battiston said the transit agency expected “all planned construction work being accomplished on schedule.

“Because the work inside the tunnel was suspended, the MBTA shifted the personnel and resources to other locations along the line where work was scheduled for later in the 16-day shutdown,” Battiston said.

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