Coakley asks regulators to cut utility storm cost recovery request

Attorney General Martha Coakley has asked state utility regulators to reject a request by Western Massachusetts Electric Co. for $20 million from a storm fund to recover the costs of responding to major weather events that occurred from 2008 to 2011, including Tropical Storm Irene.

Depending on what regulators approve, some or all of the utility’s reimbursement request could be collected from customers through a charge on their bills. Coakley asked regulators to cut the amount to be recovered to about $4.2 million.

In a brief filed Tuesday with the state Department of Public Utilities, Coakley, who acts as the state’s ratepayer advocate, said the request was excessive because it included employee bonuses, promotional t-shirts, and other discretionary costs not directly related to the company’s storm response.

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“The majority of costs that [Western Massachusetts Electric] is seeking to recover are unjustified, and should not be passed on to ratepayers,” Coakley said in statement.

In a statement, the utility said, it was seeking to recover costs from 11 storms between June 2008 and September 2011, including a devastating ice storm in 2008 and the 2010 tornado in the Springfield area.

“We strongly disagree with the Attorney General’s attempt to discredit our request to recover expenses incurred while rebuilding the electric grid after those storms,” the company said. “In a filing with the Department of Public Utilities in late May, we directly addressed all of the allegations leveled by the Attorney General and we stand by that response. We intend to continue working with the DPU to provide any additional information deemed necessary to show that the costs were necessary to restore power to customers.”

Western Massachusetts Electric, like other utilities in the state, was sharply criticized for slow responses to major storms in 2001 that left some residents without power for several days.

The Department of Public Utilities fined Western Massachusetts Electric, which serves about 200,000 people in the western part of the state, more than $2 million for its poor response to the an October 2011 snowstorm. The utility is appealing that fine.