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Residents shine light on NStar over power failures

By Danielle Ameden/Daily News staff
MetroWest Daily News
Nov 17, 2011
FRAMINGHAM — Frustrated NStar customers vented to state utility regulators last night, complaining the company mishandled two major storms that knocked out power to hundreds of thousands for days.

Some said it simply took too long for NStar to turn the lights back on after Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm. Others said the company ignored pleas to clear away live, downed wires and failed to keep customers informed about its progress restoring power.

"I really feel like we are in the dark," Andrea Barrett of Framingham told representatives from the state Department of Public Utilities during a public hearing at Walsh Middle School. "There's no information, there's no feedback, there's no status."

The state regulators collected testimony as part of its investigation into how NStar and National Grid - the two investor-owned electric utilities that serve MetroWest and much of the state - geared up for and responded to the two storms.

Howard Schwartz of Framingham said he believed "lessons were not learned from Irene."

The lengthy and widespread power failures again just two months later was deja vu, this time leaving his family in the dark and cold.

"Four days to me is excessive and never should have ever occurred," he testified.

Ann O'Grady, an Acton resident, recounted how she repeatedly called NStar customer service about live wires on her street after Tropical Storm Irene in late August.

"Nobody seemed to prioritize that," she said.

Several customers said they received automated calls from NStar saying their lights were back on, when in fact they weren't.

Lee Cohen of Holliston said he lost power in both storms.

He checked out the neighborhood after the rare Oct. 29 nor'easter and didn't see any trees or wires down.

"It was obviously a case of the infrastructure failing," he said, saying he believed NStar probably used "a Band-aid solution" after the summer storm.

Leah Robins, an aide to Rep. Carolyn Dykema, D-Holliston, read a letter from the representative that said weeklong power outages are "not acceptable."

Two NStar vice presidents told the crowd of about 50 that the company worked hard before and after the two storms and tried to ramp up its communications efforts.

Patrick Mehr of Lexington, an advocate for the creation of municipal light companies across the state, drew gasps from the crowd when he said NStar's CEO made $7.9 million last year.

Meanwhile, he argued the utility has understaffed crews in the field, which slowed the race to restore power to 506,000 customers across the state after Irene.

"Perhaps some of that money could go into having more linemen on staff," he said, drawing chuckles.

A representative from Attorney General Martha Coakley's office said it "wants answers" about many of the questions residents and officials have raised.

Among them, why it took up to a week to restore power to some customers, and that towns have complained the utility was "unresponsive, confused and unprofessional," Assistant Attorney General Danielle Rathbun testified.

"All we're really looking for is accurate, useful information," said Edward Nolan, emergency management director in Norfolk.

"I'm not looking for faster service," he said. "I think NStar did a good job. I'm looking for better communication."

Penni Conner, NStar's vice president of customer care, said after the hearing that the company was listening and trying to respond. "I feel their pain," she said, noting that her home in Medfield was without power during the last storm for 36 hours.

This and others hearings for NStar and National Grid customers are the first steps in the state's investigation that could result in fines and requirements that the utilities change their storm policies and procedures.

(Danielle Ameden can be reached at 508-626-4416 or