Department of Public Utilities fines National Grid, Western Massachusetts Electric Co. and NSTAR $24.8 million for inadequate storm responses
Army National Guardsman Sgt. Daniel McGonagle, right, works alongside Barre firefighter David Stymiest to clear trees and make roads passable in Barre, Mass. Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. The unseasonable winter storm over the weekend dumped as much as 30 inches of wet, heavy snow and snapped trees and power lines, causing widespread power failures and threatening to disrupt Halloween trick-or-treating. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — A yearlong state investigation into how electric utility companies responded to Tropical Storm Irene and the October 2011 snowstorm has resulted in $24.8 million in fines — money that regulators say will be returned to customers.
The state Department of Public Utilities announced penalties Monday that include $18.7 million in fines for National Grid, $4 million for NSTAR and $2 million in fines for Western Massachusetts Electric Co.
WMECO, which serves 210,000 customers in 59 western Massachusetts communities, said it plans to appeal the ruling. The company’s service territory was not as hard hit by the tropical storm, though the October 2011 snowstorm caused nearly three times as many outages for the company’s customers as the 2008 ice storm did.
“We strongly disagree with the DPU’s finding and are disappointed they have chosen this path to take,” said Peter Clarke, president of WMECO, in a statement. “We had hoped the department would follow the evidence showing our response properly addressed priorities created by the storm.”
In its ruling, the DPU did find that WMECO’s emergency response plan improved noticeably since the ice storm, though regulators were critical of its response to local safety officials as well as its communications with life-support customers, who rely on electricity for their medical needs.
Clarke praised his company’s work force, which during the October 2011 storm grew to 10 times its normal size. Workers responded to over 10,000 calls about downed wires and 3,300 major service interruptions that affected more than 65 percent of WMECO’s customer base.
The October 2011 snowstorm crippled the region with massive and prolonged power losses.
“We commend them for their diligence and dedication to getting the job done in extremely difficult conditions,” Clarke said.
While regulators found that WMECO and NSTAR prepared for and managed aspects of the storm well, they determined that all three utility companies failed in their public safety obligation when it came to responding to local public safety officials regarding downed wires.
In the case of National Grid — which serves more than 30,000 customers in Northampton, Belchertown, Granby, Williamsburg, Goshen and Ware — the DPU found “systemic failures” in its preparation for and response to both storms. The state agency ordered the company to undergo a comprehensive, third-party management audit of its capacity for responding to emergency events.
“These will not be the last severe storms we see, and the public cannot expect that the utilities can prevent outages in events of this magnitude,” DPU Chairwoman Ann Berwick said in a statement. “On the other hand, public safety will remain our absolutely highest priority, and we will not tolerate inadequate responses to local public safety officials.”
“Additionally, in this day and age, we expect competent communications with towns and customers alike,” she said.
National Grid issued a statement which read, “We understand customers were frustrated by the outages resulting from the devastating storms in 2011 and we share that frustration. We have implemented many changes to our emergency planning and put these into practice during Hurricane Sandy and the November nor’easter.”
National Grid officials said they welcome the opportunity to review the company’s emergency response procedures to improve its service during emergency events. The company also vowed to work closely with the DPU auditors in that review and would “continue to remain focused on providing the level of service our customers deserve and expect.”
NStar said it intended to appeal the ruling.
“We strongly disagree with the department and are disappointed that they dismissed the tireless effort put forth by our employees to respond to customers after these historic storms,” company president Werner Schweiger said in a statement.
Attorney General Martha Coakley had earlier sought $16 million in fines against National Grid, $10 million in fines against NSTAR and $4 million in fines against WMECO.
After the rulings were announced, Gov. Deval Patrick said regulated utilities must be accountable to the residents they serve.
“I trust this will encourage the utilities to refocus their efforts on preparation for and response to weather events in the future,” Patrick said.
Richard K. Sullivan, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, who joined in the DPU announcement, said as the number of serious weather events rises in Massachusetts, it’s crucial for ratepayers to have electric service that is both safe and reliable.
The state’s investigation included 16 public hearings, 13 evidentiary hearings and more than 1,200 exhibits. The DPU examined the companies’ efforts to restore electric power and all communications with affected communities. The agency also reviewed whether the companies complied with DPU regulations and fully implemented Emergency Response Plans, which were filed in May 2011.
The three utility companies have 30 days to submit plans for penalty payments to the DPU.
Meantime, the state agency announced related actions resulting from its investigation. Those include an investigation into modernizing the electric grid, reviewing the utilities’ service quality and standards, rule-making for new emergency response and vegetation management practices and reviewing the utilities’ emergency response plans and the DPU’s guidelines.
Dan Crowley can be reached at email@example.com.