2012 law required better staffing, communications from CT electric utilities

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State and local official charge that Connecticut’s two major electric utilities failed to meet the standards of a wide-ranging 2012 law that mandated better staffing levels and enhanced communications with towns and cities after the state was crippled by a pair of major storms in 2011.

While members of the legislative energy committee on Monday vowed to bring alleged failures in the response to this month’s tropical storm to a special General Assembly session in September, local officials are still picking up the pieces of what they believe were massive failures on the part of Eversource and United Illuminating Co.

“Utilities should be providing direct information to their customers,” said Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson. In particular, so-called make-safe protocols, in which town and city public works officials work with utility crews to shut off power at locations where downed trees need to be removed, were a massive failure.

While Stevenson said she has a good working relationship with the town liaison from Eversource, they, too, need to be given information they can share with local officials. “All work has to be brokered through utility centers and we had no information on utility crews on whether they were working,” Stevenson said in an interview. “Customer service is everything. Give me the information, even if it’s something that my residents don’t want to hear.”

Much of the state was without power for at least several days after Tropical Storm Isaisas traveled just west of Connecticut, with accompanying dangerous winds taking out thousands of trees and causing widespread power outages.

“You should not make money on your failures,” said state Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, co-chairman of the Energy & Technology Committee during a late-morning news conference outside the State Capitol. State Rep. David Arconti, D-Danbury, the committee’s other co-chairman, said that the corporate response was unacceptable, and was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The breakdown in communication that occurred between the utilities and their customers and the utilities and local municipal officials was completely unacceptable,” Arconti said. “To be without power for a week or longer, and not knowing when the next paycheck is going to come, and losing a week of food is completely unacceptable during this time period.”

Arconti said he wants the utilities to voluntarily organize a reimbursement program. Under a 2012 bill that was related to the overall response to the storms but which failed on the last night of the legislative session, customers could have been reimbursed for food spoilage up to $400 in the event that outages exceeded 48 hours.

Stratford Mayor Laura Hoydick, who was ranking member of the energy committee back when she was in the state House of Representatives in 2012, said that United Illuminating failed to coordinate with her public works and public safety officials.

“We have to go back to the protocols we set in 2012,” said Hoydick. “Our technology has improved so much, there’s no reason why we can’t work in tandem with the utilities.”

Joe McGee of Fairfield, a former top state development official who led the so-led the governor’s panel that investigated the utilities’ response to the storms of 2011, said in an interview that while a lot of trees have been systematically cut down along state highways, the overall performance standard of Eversource and UI has been allowed to deteriorate.

“There needs to be a tougher performance standard here,” McGee said. “They’re allowed to make extraordinary profits, but how much of that needs to be invested in the grid?”

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said Monday that the response improvements envisioned in the 2012 bill have obviously failed. “We hear from the utilities about the hardening of the system, and yet the damage this time was just as bad or worse” than the 2011 storms, he said.

In particular, Looney said, Eversource has sharply reduced its line-repair crews and has been counting on bringing in out-of-state workers when widespread damage occurs. “They weren’t even pre-planning for a storm,” Looney said. “Then when the out-of-state crews finally got here, they’d go to an assembly point and wait for hours until an Eversource employee arrived to show them where to go.”

Looney said he believes there is a will in the General Assembly to focus next month on consumer protection issues.

In the longer term, Looney said that lawmakers should even revisit the 1998 bill that restructured utilities. He also wondered why utility executives get paid multi-million-dollar salaries as if they were high-performing companies in competitive markets. In fact, UI and Eversource have state-guaranteed markets. He also wants to enhance the power of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA).

“They’re making record profits and they’re cutting off people’s power for nonpayment during the COVID crisis,” said state Rep. Anne Huges, D-Easton, who was without electricity for days after a tree fell on her house August 4. She hopes that in September, lawmakers will approve bills to reimburse ratepayers and open up utilities for civil liability, as well as mandating the burial of power lines to avoid tree damage.

Gov. Ned Lamont recently asked PURA to investigate the storm response and a hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 24.

Attorney General William Tong said Monday that the issues go beyond UI and Eversource compliance with the 2012 law by submitting emergency response plans for review and approval by PURA.

“The question now that must be answered nd thoroughly investigated is whether or not the companies followed through and met the conditions in those stated plans,” Tong said.

Edward Crowder, spokesman for UI, said Monday that he expects that the staffing and communications issues will be addressed in the hearing.

“We believe that the investigation will confirm that our preparation for and response to Tropical Storm Isaias were consistent with our PURA-approved storm plan,” Crowder said. “We will welcome any findings or recommendations that could help us improve our future performance.”

Tricia Modifica, media realtions manager for Eversource, said the company recognizes the storm’s impact.

“The massive team of line and tree crews we assembled for this storm response - along with the hundreds of employees supporting the effort behind the scenes - did an incredible job working tirelessly on this historic storm restoration,” she said. “Despite the damage being more severe than in Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene, this restoration was completed 33 percent faster. That said, as is the process with all storms, there will be a thorough review with PURA that we will fully engage in to provide information on our preparation and response.”

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT