Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) today opened an investigation of the state’s public utility companies, Eversource and United Illuminating, after Tropical Storm Isaias at its peak left over 1 million customers without power.
Central to the inquiry, which was demanded by Gov. Ned Lamont and a growing number of fellow politicians, was Eversource’s underestimation of how many outages would be caused by Isaias. The utility, headquartered in Boston, prepared for 125,000 to 380,000 power outages. At least 600,000 residents and businesses are still out as of this morning.
Lamont, who declared a state of emergency in response to the storm yesterday, said that the performances by both Eversource and New Haven-based UI were “wholly inadequate” and that they failed to “meet the obligations for the critical resources they are responsible for providing on behalf of Connecticut residents.”
“Several years ago, Connecticut experienced large-scale outages that took days to recover from, and we were told that the utilities were improving their resources so that they can be prepared for the next time Mother Nature inevitably hits again,” Lamont said.
“I’m asking PURA to begin this investigation so that we can determine whether the companies are meeting their legal obligations and whether any penalties need to be applied,” he said. “The people of Connecticut deserve better than the service they are receiving.”
Specifically, Lamont is asking PURA to:
• Consider whether the utilities were adequately prepared and have the resources they need to respond to significant weather events;
• Evaluate their response and whether it met regulatory and statutory requirements;
• Determine whether resources that were invested into their outage response system was prudent in light of the recent system failures; and
• Determine whether civil penalties should be applied.
Attorney General William Tong has formally requested to intervene in the PURA investigation, and is encouraging the agency to put the companies on notice of potential fines and penalties.
“Eversource and United Illuminating appear to have been unacceptably unprepared for Isaias and must be held accountable,” he said. “The Office of the Attorney General will be fully engaged in this investigation on behalf of ratepayers who are entitled to answers and any appropriate relief.
“PURA is right to open this investigation, and must be prepared to issue real fines and penalties to hold the utilities accountable for their failure,” Tong continued. “Consumers have a right to be angry here — as am I.”
According to PURA, UI declared the then-pending Isaias a Level 3 event, which would impact 30-50% of its customers and could result in outages of at least five days. Eversource predicted the storm would be a lesser Level 4 event, which would impact 10-29% of its customers and result in outages of up to six days.
“As a storm approaches, we engage a variety of different resources – including UConn’s predictive model and experts from outside weather services – to track the storm and forecast its severity and path,” Eversource said in a statement.
“Based on the tools and guidance we received from our external experts, we followed our plan and filed for the appropriate level of classification,” it continued. “From the time we declared our initial level based on our best available tracking models at the end of last week, the storm’s path deviated from those models and we’ve reclassified the storm accordingly as our models dictated, which is a typical utility practice once a storm hits.”
Complicating matters is the fact that the utilities will not begin repairs until downed trees and other debris are cleared by each municipality’s departments of public works. State Sen. Tony Hwang (R-28th) said that “the apparent lack of ‘make safe’ crews to ensure electrical safety for each town’s DPW to clear streets of fallen debris is a public health and safety concern hampering emergency first-responder services.
“I want to add my voice to Governor Lamont’s sense of urgency to resolve the power outages and join him in his call for PURA to investigate our utility companies’ disaster preparedness and how poorly they are handling the aftermath of this storm,” Hwang said. “People’s frustrations are compounded by the lack of communications and customer support by our utilities. This failure is a betrayal of the public trust and a dangerous issue of health and safety during the current Covid-19 pandemic.”
Lamont also has submitted a request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, seeking a presidential emergency declaration. Such a declaration would allow the state to request direct federal assistance to supplement state and local efforts. The governor’s request also includes a potential 75% federal reimbursement of state and local emergency protective measures.
The governor further said that his administration has begun the initial damage assessments required to determine whether the state meets the threshold necessary for a presidential major disaster declaration, which would enable supplemental federal assistance.
Local pols frustrated
Meanwhile, Fairfield First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick has signed a disaster declaration and Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim has ordered City Attorney R. Christopher Meyer to work with the state’s attorney’s office to determine if a racial discrimination suit against UI might be in order, given the city’s demographics. Ganim reportedly was told by UI not to continue calling when he complained about the utility’s lack of response.
Stamford Mayor David Martin, Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling and Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi, among others, have also voiced displeasure with the utilities’ performance.
In a recorded call to Newtown residents, First Selectman Dan Rosenthal stated: “I do not accept that the corporate preparedness (of Eversource) is what it should have been …. I am not in any way satisfied, nor is the emergency management team.” Rosenthal pledged to continue seeking answers.
The Isaias incident follows by just a few days PURA’s decision to suspend a rate increase that Eversource had put into effect on July 1.
This afternoon, Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) and State Senator Paul Formica (R-East Lyme), ranking member of the Energy & Technology Committee, released a joint statement questioning Eversource’s response.
“After Irene, the October storm and Sandy, how could Eversource not be prepared for a tropical storm with weeks of notice?” they wrote. “Especially at a time when Eversource executives have slammed Connecticut residents with unaffordable electric bills, at the same time we are all trying to make ends meet and stay safe in the middle of a pandemic, their failures are beyond unacceptable.
“We agree with Gov. Lamont that we need PURA to investigate our utilities immediately, and we also believe lawmakers need to be part of that investigation and get information directly from PURA as soon as they obtain it. State legislators represent the voices of the people, and the public needs eyes and ears on what is happening.
“We all remember the damage caused by the slow response of our utility companies during previous storms,” the pair continued. “But we have never experienced this situation in the middle of a pandemic, when people are doing everything they can to stay home, and now home for many has become unsafe and unlivable …. Top management of Eversource needs to be honest and accountable, to their workers and ratepayers alike.”
In a Wednesday interview with radio station WDBY, Danbury Mark Boughton quipped: “If anyone sees ‘Neversource,’ let me know, ‘cause they’re not in Danbury …. They changed the name, remember after the last fiasco, they were Northeast Utilities and they were like, ‘We gotta rebrand, we gotta rebrand.’ They are going to have to rebrand after the billing debacle and this nightmare.”
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