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Coakley questions National Grid cutbacks

Raises concerns over ability to respond to storms

Martha Coakley criticized utility’s storm response. Martha Coakley criticized utility’s storm response.
By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / February 10, 2011

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Attorney General Martha Coakley will raise concerns tonight with state regulators that National Grid’s plan to lay off workers will hurt the utility’s ability to respond to severe storms that could leave tens of thousands of homes without electricity.

National Grid is under investigation by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities for its handling of a Dec. 26 storm that knocked out power to more than 120,000 customers for extended periods and forced municipalities to handle utility-related problems when the company did not have enough crews in certain areas.

Coakley will submit testimony to state officials in Gloucester during the first of three public hearings on National Grid’s storm response.

In written testimony, the attorney general said she worries that National Grid’s plan to reorganize its US operations will impair its ability to handle storms. Last month, the London-based utility said it would cut roughly 7 percent of its US workforce, or 1,200 employees, to help save $200 million.

“The attorney general is concerned about whether National Grid’s recent announcement that it will reduce its workforce . . . will have an effect on the company’s ability to handle storm events and other critical operations,’’ the testimony said.

Coakley criticized National Grid’s response to the December storm, filing the petition that prompted the investigation by utility regulators. In that petition, Coakley, the state’s ratepayer advocate, questioned whether National Grid fully followed an emergency plan that called for coordination with local officials before storms hit and having repair crews ready to roll after they do damage.

She reiterated these criticisms in her testimony, noting complaints from public safety officials that it took National Grid up to 20 hours to respond to calls about downed wires, leaving firefighters to guard those wires and unable to respond to other emergencies, including burning and flooding homes.

“The attorney general wants answers as to why National Grid’s restoration effort was not handled more efficiently,’’ the testimony said. “We want answers as to how and why some utility companies in Massachusetts dealt with similar restoration challenges better than others and what problems occurred concerning communication with public safety officials and customers.’’

National Grid yesterday defended its response to the December storm, saying it deployed more than 600 crews and hundreds of other employees. Within 36 hours of the storm’s end, it had restored power to tens of thousands of customers left without electricity at the storm’s peak and in the days after, when severe winds caused additional damage.

“We feel there is always room for improvement in emergency planning and work hard at continually enhancing our emergency response plans,’’ the utility said in a statement.

National Grid said its reorganization and resulting layoffs would not hurt its ability to respond to emergencies.

“One of the key goals of our new business model is to sharpen our focus on the local areas we serve and to improve service for customers, including restoring power during storms as quickly and safely as possible, ’’ the utility said.

Mayor Carolyn Kirk of Gloucester said her city had some of the area’s worst outages, with some homes going without power for up to 24 hours. Kirk said she sees tonight’s hearing in Gloucester City Hall as an opportunity to evaluate National Grid’s emergency response and to figure out how the city and utility can work more closely.

“To know that the DPU is standing with the city to help facilitate the conversation, we’re very happy about,’’ she said. “We need to have a game plan in place.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.