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State officials press National Grid on response to storms

Under sharp questioning from state authorities Monday, National Grid officials defended their response to Tropical Storm Irene and last October’s surprise snowstorm, saying the magnitude of the damage made widespread outages unavoidable.

Representatives from the power company, which came under harsh criticism for prolonged ­outages after the storms, spoke at a hearing before state regulators, who are reviewing whether utilities should have restored service more quickly.

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Officials with the state attorney general’s office pressed National Grid officials on their storm preparations and whether they should have done more in the aftermath. Both storms left hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts customers in the dark.

But the utility stood by its performance and refused to take blame for the outages, which in some parts of the state lasted several days.

“It really was an excellent effort by our company,” said Christopher Root, senior vice president of network strategy for National Grid.

The state Department of Public Utilities is conducting the weeklong hearing at its offices at South Station, part of several investigations held in response to community and customer concerns over the outages.

Leaders in Foxborough, for instance, criticized National Grid for the outages, saying the company’s old infrastructure and insufficient tree-trimming were to blame.

Utility companies are publicly regulated and subject to government sanctions.

Depending on its findings, regulators could fine the companies and require them to change their storm policies. Last September, DPU penalized National Grid $1.2 million for its response to a ­December 2010 snowstorm.

Last month, regulators held hearings on Western Massachusetts Electric’s response, and a review of NStar is slated for later this month.

On Monday, Paul Stakutis, assistant attorney general, asked utility officials if they had learned lessons from the storm and whether they wished, in retrospect, they had handled things differently.

In a tense exchange, National Grid officials acknowledged no missteps or misgivings.

“I believe the company did a good job in responding to the scenario,” Root said.

Stakutis asked National Grid officials if they understood that elected officials and residents in ­affected towns were angry over their response after Tropical Storm Irene in August, and if they ­believed that anger was justified.

Root said the company “certainly understands their frustration,” but described Irene as a “catastrophic event” that caused extensive damage up and down the East Coast.

Stakutis questioned whether National Grid could have brought in crews earlier in anti­cipation of Irene, but Root said they acted as soon as Irene’s path became reasonably clear.

“It’s a very delicate balance,” he said. “We started taking ­action several days before.”

Stakutis asked whether the company could have reduced the scope of damage if crews had regularly removed more damaged trees near power lines.

Root said that cutting down trees on town and personal property is often contentious and that a broader campaign to remove damaged trees would only have gone so far.

“In these storms, many, many healthy trees failed,” he said.

Stakutis asked if technology that automatically switches homes that have lost power to working lines could have limited outages, but Root said the scope of the outages was too great.

“These storms were widespread events,” he said. “The whole area’s out; what are you going to switch it to?”

Showing some frustration with the state’s line of questioning, National Grid officials defended their staffing decisions, saying it was not feasible to bring in a large number of crews well before the storm arrived.

“Hurricane paths change every day,” Root said. “It’s not a black-and-white scenario.”

Peter Schworm can be reached at@globe.com.
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