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Q&A With Acton's Town Manager: NSTAR's Priorities Differ from Acton's

Here is a post-storm Q&A with Acton Town Manager, Steven Ledoux.
By Patrick Clark,
November 7, 2011

Acton Patch: How do you feel the communication went between the Town and NSTAR this time around?

Ledoux: I still think there are a lot of problems. We communicated to NSTAR what we thought the main priorities and they had different priorities. A good case and point is Robbins Street because there were downed power lines and trees that blocked a dead end street and we couldn’t get emergency vehicles down there if we had to. We needed to get that street opened as a main priority but that didn’t happen until Tuesday night into Wednesday morning and frankly, I think a lot of the people on that street were frustrated.

It seemed like every time we communicated with them [NSTAR] in terms of what we thought priorities were they seemingly didn’t pay too much attention to it. In fact, we even had one of our police officers drive an NSTAR scout around Acton to physically show him some of the areas we were concerned with.

Acton Patch: If just a tree fell down and blocks a street, a municipal tree crew could come in immediately and remove the tree debris so that emergency vehicles have access through the road, but if a tree knocks down a wire, then the municipal crew has to wait for NSTAR to respond?

Ledoux: Anytime there is a wire down you’ve got to assume it’s live because you just don’t know and even some of NSTAR’s scouts can’t identify if the lines are live or not. The Town as an emergency team had meetings twice a day just so we all knew what the main issues were but we were kind of stuck because until NSTAR starts moving we can’t do a lot. We have tree crews but if we don’t know if a line is live or dead they can’t really deal with it.

Acton Patch: Was Irene a good “test run” for the town to deal with these types of emergency situations? What did the Town take away from Irene in preparation for the October 29 storm?

Ledoux: We opened up a shelter at the Senior Center relatively early on Saturday night. In fact, we may have been one of the first communities to open up our shelter. We try to get as much information out as possible to the community by various means.

I think generally we responded well. To put it into perspective, this was not an isolated case. It wasn’t just Acton, it was basically the whole state. Irene was maybe five or six specific neighborhoods and this storm was all over the place.

When you look at the span of time, NSTAR actually got power back to the Town one day quicker than with Irene, with more people affected this time around. It’s just that we were frustrated with how our priorities were different from NSTAR's.

Acton Patch: What are NSTAR’s priorities compared to Acton's?

Ledoux: The number one priority for them is to bring back power for people on life care, like hospitals and nursing homes, which is understandable. The second issue is really what they can do to bring the most people back in one fell swoop. A more dense area would get more attention over one that may have public safety issues but is denser; Robbins Street is a good example of that.

Acton Patch: Has the past two storms (Irene and the October 29 storm) made the Town start thinking more about obtaining municipally owned utilities?

Ledoux: My understanding is that some state law would have to change to enable that to happen. I don’t think there has been any new municipal power companies created since the 1920’s and my understanding is that efforts to give cities and towns that tool has not made it through the legislator on several attempts.

We are going to discuss it on November 21, at the Selectmen’s meeting, to see what kind of direction they would like us to go. The interesting thing throughout this whole power outage thing is that the media has kind of been getting the word out about municipally owned utilities so I wonder if that is going to help change some of the focus or attitudes on Beacon Hill about the legislation that is needed.

Even if you have the legislation then you’ve got to figure out how you capitalize the whole thing. You have to purchase the infrastructure from NSTAR. It’s very complicated and it’s not an overnight easy fix.