Eight-foot flames shot out from a gas-powered generator powering high-pressure cleaning hoses at a Brooklyn subway station last week — an example of safety risks and cut corners on the MTA’s “deep cleaning” of subway stations that is part of the Subway Action Plan.
Workers scrambled to shut off the generator, one of six set up on the eastbound platform at the Clinton-Washington station on the C line in Clinton Hill in the accident witnessed Tuesday by the Daily News.
Crews were calm as they put out the fire — the generators had caught fire before during station cleaning, workers said.
The accident is an example of the safety risks and cut corners that have come with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s “deep cleaning” program paid for by the $836 million Subway Action Plan.
The contractor, WRS Environmental Services, is one of 21 outside firms commissioned by the MTA to aggressively clean 106 stations this year.
The agency has dedicated $200 million of its Subway Action Plan money to station and train car cleanings. The spending includes $16 million to hire outside firms to aggressively scrub stations.
The decision to bring in outside cleaning firms nearly sparked a union picket earlier this year. Transport Workers Union Local 100 and MTA bosses came to a compromise: the agency could bring in outside crews to intensely clean the batch of stations, and two union workers would be on site for the cleanings to learn new techniques.
MTA spokesman Max Young said the work aimed to get stations to a point of cleanliness that in-house crews could maintain moving forward.
“Besides cleaning the stations through the Subway Action Plan, the MTA has begun to incorporate some of the independent contractors’ means and methods so we can reinforce this work every few days and keep these stations clean,” Young said.
But the Daily News found that some of those means and methods skirt basic safety standards.
Sixteen workers cleaned the Clinton-Washington station last week — compared to three or four workers usually assigned to the MTA’s unionized mobile wash force.
The contractors scrubbed areas like light fixtures and vents, where in-house crews normally do not hit.
Those workers were using heavy duty “citrol” chemicals to complete the clean. The fumes from the solvent mixed with the intense exhaust from the gas generators and the vapor from hot, pressurized water. The combination made the underground air difficult to breathe.
Workers were wearing minimal protective gear. Some didn’t have face masks.
Gov. Cuomo has repeatedly chided the MTA’s in-house cleaners over the last six months, alleging they only use Tide detergent to clean the subway stations.
The governor is correct when he says that that Local 100 workers use detergent — Procter & Gamble sells a heavy-duty version of Tide to clean floors and industrial sites.
But the workers also use bleach solutions, power washers, scrub brushes and, in some cases, the same types of Citrol degreasing solutions the private companies use, union officials say.
WRS executive Mike Rodgers repeated Cuomo’s use of the Tide jibe last week. Rodgers hopes to get more work from the agency.
“Nonunion contractors are a scourge to the safety of the system,” said TWU International President John Samuelsen. “We’ll clean with any chemical they issue us to clean with as long as we can do it in a safe manner.”
Samuelsen thinks the MTA got the short end of the deal with the private contractors, and called the move to hire them a “political stunt.”
Outside contractors have also been brought into subway train maintenance facilities to clean cars inside and out.
FleetWash, the contractor hired to do exterior cleaning, uses strong chemicals that are not allowed to be dumped into city sewers. FleetWash pump the runoff from its work back into waste tanks in their trucks and hauls it off for disposal.
The company leaves the outside of subway cars, roughly 3,000 so far, sparkling and shiny. They do this by using a high-powered pressure washer to blast them with a highly concentrated phosphoric acid solution, which over time can corrode the cars’ stainless steel exteriors.
“It has a very high acid content,” a high ranking MTA source said of FleetWash’s cleaning mixture. “It’s not meant to be used regularly.”
The MTA has train car washing facilities at eight of its subway depots that automatically blast cars with water and cleaning solutions, but are unable to fully remove years of built up rust and grime.
FleetWash CEO Anthony DiGiovanni said the treatment should be applied to subway cars every few months. The company’s contract expires in early July.
Private contractors who clean cars’ interiors use safer chemicals. Imperial Cleaning Company, one of three contractors brought in to clean 3,000 cars, uses standard soap, mops and wipes for the floors and seats, and off-the-shelf Bar Keepers’ Friend to polish steel grab bars.
Imperial Cleaning supervisors said it takes a full day for 16 of its workers to clean a 10-car train. Before the Subway Action Plan was launched, the MTA deployed just one or two workers to clean each train.
Some riders may notice cleaner cars and platforms — but surveys show straphangers believed they were already up to snuff. Recent MTA surveys say 85% of straphangers find the appearance of stations and cars acceptable.
While cleaner environments will have minimal impact on subway service, agency officials hope the outside contractors’ work will set a new baseline for cleanliness.
“These intensive cleanings were necessary because many of the stations have not been thoroughly cleaned in decades,” said Young. “The deep cleaning also helps in maintaining the structural elements of the station.”