Senator steamed over utilities' response to storm

By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
Nov 15, 2011
BOSTON — A state senator from western Massachusetts on Tuesday called communication between utility companies and consumers in the aftermath of the recent nor’easter a “disgrace,” while Attorney General Martha Coakley urged utility regulators go further in their investigation of the power companies than in past probes.

The Department of Public Utilities issued an order Tuesday opening an investigation into the storm preparation of National Grid, NSTAR and Western Massachusetts Electric Company following the Oct. 29 storm. National Grid and NSTAR are already subject of an ongoing DPU investigation into their response to Tropical Storm Irene.

Sen. Stephen Brewer, the Senate Ways and Means Committee chair, ripped utility companies operating in western and central Massachusetts for giving consumers unrealistic projections for when power might be restored after the rare October snowstorm left hundreds of thousands of customers without power, some for more than a week.

“The utility companies’ failure to effectively communicate with state and local officials, as well as home and business owners is a disgrace,” Brewer wrote in a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick Tuesday. “As residents of the Commonwealth scrambled to make safe, reliable accommodations, they were consistently provided inaccurate and inconsistent information. It became rapidly evident that these companies were setting unrealistic goals and falling short of customer’s expectations.”

In describing the disjointed response to power outages, Brewer said power had been restored to vacant buildings before emergency shelter. Brewer asked for the DPU to hold a public hearing in central Massachusetts near Spencer and East Brookfield so that severely impacted residents have a chance to participate.

Rather than investigate whether utility companies simply complied with their emergency response plans following the most recent storm, Coakley on Tuesday recommended that the Department of Public Utilities take a different approach and reassess the entire basis for those plans.

“It may well be that even if the utilities are found to have complied with those standards, those ERPs are not in fact meeting the public's need for reliable restoration of service,” wrote Jesse Reyes, the chief of the Attorney General’s Office of Ratepayer Advocacy, in a letter to DPU Chairwoman Ann Berwick.

Coakley’s office on Tuesday formally recommended a DPU investigation into the storm response by National Grid, NSTAR and Western Massachusetts Electric. Coakley’s office said the attorney general had been called to act by the towns of Avon, Duxbury, Newton, New Bedford, and Springfield relative to the utilities’ response to Tropical Storm Irene and the Oct. 29 storm that buried western Massachusetts in snow while hitting the east with rain.

Multiple state representatives, senators and fire chiefs have also written to Coakley requesting an investigation, according to Reyes, and Fire Chiefs’ Association President Paul Zbikowski wrote to express concern about the lack of communication between the utilities and local fire departments during the outages.

A spokeswoman for the DPU also said that a public hearing on Tropical Storm Irene postponed from last week had been rescheduled to Nov. 29 in Southborough.

Following an investigation into Unitil’s response to power outages after a severe ice storm in 2008, all utilities were required to have filed and approved with DPU emergency response plans to storms. Earlier this year, the DPU investigated National Grid's compliance with its ERP in response to a December 2010 storm, and approved the Coakley’s $2 million settlement with National Grid.

Reyes also requested that the DPU weigh the costs associated with responding to storms on an ad hoc basis against the costs of increased tree trimming and infrastructure improvements that could reduce the number of downed lines in a storm. “Given the severity of recent storms and the significant numbers of downed wires, caused by tree limbs falling, perhaps tree trimming standards ought to be revised,” Reyes wrote.

The attorney general’s office, however, said non-compliance with ERP’s should not be overlooked, and severely punished. “If there were violations of the ERPs, the Department must use its significant penalty authority,” Reyes wrote.

The DPU is authorized to fine utilities up to $250,000 for each violation for each day that the violation persists up to a maximum penalty of $20 million.