Attorney General Martha Coakley is asking state utility regulators to levy a record fine against National Grid for what she called an inadequate response to power outages after Tropical Storm Irene and a rare October snowstorm.
At a press conference Thursday, Coakley recommended that National Grid pay $16.3 million for poor handling of the storms, which left hundreds of thousands of customers without power when Irene pummeled the state in August and again when a pre-Halloween storm sent snow-laden tree limbs crashing through power lines.
The storms caused power outages that lasted for days. In the case of the October storm, some customers were in the dark for over a week.
“We believe that Massachusetts customers deserve better,” said Coakley, who acts as the states’ ratepayer advocate. “I am hopeful that this will send a message that they can, and should, be doing better.”
In a statement, National Grid said, “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.”
This is the second time in less than a month that Coakley has recommended a large penalty for an investor-owned utility because of subpar restoration efforts following the storms. Two weeks ago, she asked the state Department of Public Utilities to fine Western Massachusetts Electric Co. $4 million.
Coakley’s office is expected to recommend a large storm-
related fine, comparable to National Grid’s, against NStar in early August. NStar declined to comment.
The Department of Public Utilities launched formal reviews of the utilities’ response to storms in September and November. Coakley’s office said it expects a decision on its recommendations soon, but would not be more specific. If the fines are approved by regulators, customers will not get back any of that money, which, under Massachusetts law, goes into the state’s general fund.
But Coakley and National Grid agree that any penalties should go to ratepayers, and Coakley is supporting legislation that would allow that. The idea is that customers suffer damages such as spoiled food in extended outages and should be reimbursed or receive credits on their bills.
Coakley said Thursday that her office is seeking the record fine against National Grid because of the company’s apparent lack of preparation, poor response times, and ineffective communication with local officials about power restoration efforts. National Grid failed to mobilize enough crews for the storm, Coakley said, perhaps in part because the utility relied too heavily on the expertise of its top officers and not enough on advanced technology to help model and anticipate the severity of storms. She called it a “seat of the pants” approach.
“We think that’s inadequate, especially in 2012,” she said.
In some cases, Coakley said, National Grid’s poor response endangered elderly and disabled residents and stretched fire departments as firefighters attempted to handle both residential emergency calls and monitor downed power lines.
“They were held hostage to the situation,” Coakley said.
In Brockton, Fire Chief Richard Francis said the size of Coakley’s recommended fine is a validation of the “terrific strain” borne by his department and other emergency workers while responding to utility-related calls following Tropical Storm Irene.
At one elder-care high-rise, Francis said, residents had no air-conditioning or refrigeration for four or five days.
“I had half my shift tied up at just that one incident, and it was very disconcerting to hear these people crying for us to help them,” he said. “There were people stuck in elevators. It was just a nightmare situation.”
At the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, a Boston nonprofit that advocates for consumers, legislative director Deirdre Cummings said she was also heartened by the hefty fine Coakley recommended. But, she added, only time will tell if it is large enough to prompt change.
“Certainly it’s enough for the company to take notice,” she said, “I do know that unless there is a fine associated with poor performance or failures, they’re not going to fix the problem.”Erin Ailworth can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.