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Foxborough slams National Grid for outages and utility’s response after Hurricane Sandy

A National Grid crew works in Norwell Tuesday.

MATT CAMPBELL /European Pressphoto Agency

A National Grid crew works in Norwell Tuesday.

Foxborough officials ripped into National Grid after last week’s storm, blaming the utility company and its “antiquated” equipment for the third major power outage in the town in a year  and what they say was an inadequate ground response to get the lights back on.

A complaint will be filed with the state Department of Public Utilities, Town Manager Kevin Paicos said.

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“The assurances they gave us last year are now ringing hollow,’’ Paicos said. “There is no credibility there at all. It’s gone.”

Foxborough selectmen wrangled with the utility in 2011 after week-long blackouts from Tropical Storm Irene and a Halloween snowstorm crippled residents and businesses. Company executives promised that fixes to infrastructure, including the Union Loop, a network of power lines that feed 12 towns including Foxborough, would stem more problems.

But five of the loop’s 12 feeds went down again during Hurricane Sandy, blacking out 75 percent of the town’s customers, Paicos said. Further, no repair trucks were seen anywhere in the town either before, during, or immediately after the storm, he said.

Tom Coughlin, a National Grid liaison assigned to the town, apologized during an emergency meeting on Tuesday with selectmen and other town officials for the failures. He also took responsibility for erroneous information the company disseminated that restoring power would be a multiple-day effort, causing Superintendent Debra Spinelli to cancel school unnecessarily on Tuesday.

“Rest assured that National Grid takes this seriously, and I expect the regulators will really come down hard on us to make sure we get it right next time,’’ Coughlin said at the meeting.

Last summer, state Attorney General Martha Coakley recommended that the state Department of Public Utilities issue a $16 million fine to National Grid for its response to Irene in August 2011 and the October 2011 snowstorm. Coakley also urged that utility NStar be fined $9.7 million for its response to the two storms. The Legislature also passed a new storm response statute, sponsored by Norwood Representative John Rogers, a member of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, aimed at expediting response times of companies that fix damaged and downed wires so that Massachusetts residents aren’t without power for too long after storms.

Foxborough wasn’t the only south suburb where a significant number of homes lost power last week.

Norwell was hit hard, with 3,424 National Grid customers out of a total of 4,400 without electricity, according to Fire Chief Andrew Reardon. Still, local public safety officials said they were thankful that the town had “dodged a bullet” because storm damage was so minimal, compared with what it might have been.

At the height of the storm on Monday, 2,419 National Grid customers in Abington were without power, as well as 2,206 in West Bridgewater and 3,394 in Whitman, officials said. Some 2,400 National Grid employees hit the streets on Tuesday statewide to do repair work, including line and tree crews, according to the company.

Some towns fared better this time compared with the aftermath of Irene. Mansfield reported 36 outages out of its municipal power company’s 9,500 customer accounts. During Irene, 7,250 customers were without power at one time or another, town officials said.

“Since Irene, we carefully analyzed places where we had issues and went in to strengthen them,’’ said Town Manager William Ross.  

In Walpole, 14 percent of the town’s 24,000 residents lost power during Sandy but utility company NStar had the lights back up quickly, Town Administrator Michael Boynton said.

In Brockton, 3,600 of the city’s National Grid customers lost power, said Mayor Linda Balzotti — considerably less than the 18,000 left in the dark after Irene.

“It was a different type of storm,’’ Balzotti said. “But we were very fortunate.”

Stoughton also fared better with Hurricane Sandy than with Irene, when 10,000 customers were without power for the better part of a week in August 2011. At the height of Sandy Monday, about 2,100 customers were without power, a number that decreased to about 600 Tuesday and to just over 100 Wednesday morning, according to Stoughton police Lieutenant Robert Devine, a member of the Stoughton Emergency Management team. 

“It was like night and day,” Devine said of the impact from the two storms.

In Dedham, 460, or about 4 percent, of the town’s NStar customers lost power, a far cry from the 5,000 who were in the dark after Irene. In a statement, Town Administrator William Keegan said operational changes implemented over the past year appear to have resulted in a more efficient response time from NStar that was coordinated with local teams.

In Foxborough, town officials worked with National Grid for months earlier this year to cut back trees around electrical wires in an effort to avoid power outages, and utility workers also trimmed along the Union Loop. But still the equipment failed, raising the question of whether an overhaul is needed, said a frustrated James DeVellis, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

“The Union Loop is equivalent to an old Chevy,” DeVellis said. “There are only so many parts to put on it to make it work.”

People now expect Foxborough to have major power failures, judging from the news crews that flock there for storms, he said. That makes the town seem like a joke.

“I’m angry, and the people are angry,’’ said DeVellis, who has called for a National Grid representative to appear at the next selectmen’s meeting. “I’m sick of it. I’m tired of it. I just don’t see the love coming back to Foxborough.”

Resident Pattiann Malynn said she is also frustrated.

“I am appreciative for all the town departments and National Grid crews who worked so hard to protect our health and well-being,’’ she said. “But I am also deeply disappointed that the Union Loop continues to be a problem, and the level of communication from National Grid is unacceptable.”

As of Wednesday night, complete power was restored in Foxborough, according to Fire Chief Roger Hatfield. 

Brian Ballou of the Globe staff and correspondent Rich Fahey contributed to this report.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.
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