Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley announced Thursday that she was seeking more than $16 million in fines against National Grid for what she said was the company’s subpar performance in restoring power after Tropical Storm Irene last August and the rare early snowstorm in October.
“We believe that Massachusetts customers deserve better,” Coakley said at a news conference Thursday. “I am hopeful that this will send a message that they can, and should, be doing better.”
Hundreds of thousands of National Grid customers lost their power, first when the winds from Irene whirled through the state, then when the record-setting pre-Halloween snowstorm weighed down tree limbs and brought down wires. Thousands of people had to wait days for their power to be restored.
A National Grid spokeswoman issued a statement acknowledging that its power restoration efforts had not met customers’ expectations, but saying the company disagreed with Coakley’s “extreme conclusions.”
Coakley said she was seeking the fines for a lack of preparation, adequate response, and communication. The fine is the largest penalty her office has ever sought in Massachusetts, she said.
She said her office “heard consistently from town officials who just could not get information” from National Grid, and therefore had trouble dispatching police, firefighters, and first responders.
When it came to assisting the elderly and disabled with emergency generators, “lack of information put those members of the community at risk,” she said.
Coakley said National Grid “did not employ proper software technology to predict storms” and instead relied on a “seat of the pants response.” She said the company’s staff members “must use technology to make sure they are responding to what is a public safety issue, not simply an inconvenience.”
Coakley said the company was also unable to mobilize sufficient crews.
“Although the plans may be good on paper, the execution was insufficient,” she said.
She said a main goal is to make sure the company’s infrastructure is sound for future disasters.
“We can anticipate that we will see similar events,” she said, mentioning the possibility of tornadoes Thursday in Western New England. “This is about being ready when there is no emergency.”
Coakley said she also hopes to take a close look at quality standards, and revamp the current service metrics, on which National Grid has received high marks in the past.
“There seems to be a disconnect between what their report card says and what they can actually perform,” she said.
Coakley said her office will act as a “watchdog” on consumer rate increases to make sure any fines incurred by National Gird are passed along to shareholders, not ratepayers.
National Grid spokeswoman Deborah Drew said the company would be filing a formal response on Aug. 1 with the Department of Public Utilities “and we will wait to see what they find and recommend.”
“While we acknowledge that our storm restoration efforts did not meet our customers’ expectations, and there is room for improvement, we strongly disagree with the extreme conclusions the Attorney General has drawn,” Drew said in a statement. “We will continue to work to provide the level of service our customers expect and deserve.”
Coakley has gotten tougher in recent years in monitoring power companies’ storm response. Her office investigated National Grid’s response to a snowstorm in late 2010, and the company ultimately agreed to a settlement worth more than $2.2 million that included payments to the United Way and Red Cross, and training for local safety authorities.
Following a 2008 ice storm that left some Central Massachusetts Unitil customers without power for as long as two weeks, Coakley recommended stiff fines. The utility was ordered to conduct a management audit, but was not fined specifically for its performance.