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Lawmakers Quiz Utilities on Hurricane Response

By Jamie Wellington
Capital News Service
Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2003

ANNAPOLIS - Maryland lawmakers questioned utility company spending on trimming trees Tuesday, about one month after Hurricane Isabel swept through most of Maryland, knocking out power for more than a week in some areas.

"There's a feeling . . . that with better . . . maintenance, some of these problems could have been alleviated," said Delegate Dereck Davis, D-Prince George's, chairman of Maryland's House Economic Matters Committee.

The House panel joined the Senate Finance Committee to discuss the responses of electric companies to storm power losses just one day after the utilities' deadline to provide justification for the outages to the Maryland Public Service Commission. The PSC will hold hearings after reviewing the reports.

Criticism of Maryland electric companies' performance after Isabel was widespread. Many key political figures have called for investigations into their response.

In a written statement to the committees, Pepco President William J. Sim acknowledged that "coordination of efforts to clear streets of downed trees and wires" could have been better.

"This was a major frustration to everyone involved," Sim said.

Nearly 80 percent of Pepco customers were without power after Isabel, the company reported.

Responses to Hurricane Isabel, including temporary and possible permanent fixes, cost Baltimore Gas and Electric approximately $81 million, said Ken DeFontes, BGE vice president of electric transmission and distribution.

On average, BGE spends about $15 million annually on tree trimming, DeFontes said. This year, the company's expenditures increased to approximately $19 million.

BGE reported it had more than 790,000 customers out at the height of the storm.

DeFontes said a lot of the damage during the storm came from fallen trees. However, not a single transmission line went out of service where there were no trees.

Communication between power companies and customers also was discussed, with Davis saying he wished he could have pursued it more during the meeting.

"That's the one" on which people should focus, said Sen. John C. Astle, D-Anne Arundel.

Astle spoke on behalf of Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Queen Anne's, who was not able to attend. Pipkin is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Barbara Mikulski, D-Baltimore.

Astle was very critical of information provided on Baltimore and Delmarva television stations from some electric power companies. The companies failed to separate data by state, so Maryland statistics were lumped with those of Delaware and other states.

Copyright 2003 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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