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People's Counsel Criticizes Utilities' Storm Response

By Jamie Wellington
Capital News Service
Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2003

ANNAPOLIS - Some power problems after summer thunderstorms and Hurricane Isabel should have been corrected by utility companies after they were identified as early as 1999, the Maryland Office of People's Counsel has found.

Tree-trimming, blamed by utilities for much of the power trouble, had been examined by work groups created after the 1999 storms, including Hurricane Floyd, the People's Counsel noted in a report to the Maryland Public Service Commission.

"The tremendous amount of damage caused by a storm that was no longer at hurricane status (Isabel) raises questions as to the effectiveness of current tree-trimming strategies," the report said.

Friday was the deadline for comments on power company performance to be considered by the Public Service Commission, which regulates Maryland utilities. The commission is examining why hundreds of thousands of customers lost power, some for almost a week, when Hurricane Isabel hit the Washington Metropolitan area in September.

The deadline fell one day after fierce winds racked the area and state utility companies again faced thousands of homes and businesses blacked out.

The People's Counsel and the commission's engineering division submitted comments by the deadline.

Utility companies, including Pepco and Baltimore Gas and Electric, submitted their reports to the commission a month ago.

The Office of People's Counsel, led by newcomer Patricia Smith, questions whether the restoration problems were caused by the severity of the storms.

Her office was critical of Pepco's progress, but, noted several improvements from BGE.

"People's Counsel is of the opinion that Pepco's slow restoration response to the August 2003 storms and to Isabel might have been exacerbated by several factors under the company's control."

The People's Counsel cited a lack of customer communication and an inadequate number of crews responding to the outages.

Pepco has not reviewed the comments, said Denise Gavilan, a company spokeswoman.

BGE said it's invested nearly $300 million since 1999 in system reliability and other improvements.

"Our performance during Isabel is indicative of that investment," said Robert L. Gould, BGE spokesman.

The commission's engineering staff joined the People's Counsel in endorsing pursuit of burying electric lines, an option discussed recently by a Maryland governmental task force.

The People's Counsel also recommended utility companies provide progress reports on improvements six months after public hearings end. The office also recommended a group be formed to look into tree-trimming solutions.

Power companies may respond by Dec. 5. The commission has scheduled public hearings on Dec. 15 and Dec. 16.


Copyright 2003 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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