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Foxborough blames utility for lengthy power outages

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / November 6, 2011

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Foxborough has been in the dark a lot lately. The town had to bar Halloween trick-or-treating, a situation its officials blame on what they call National Grid’s lax tree-trimming efforts, outdated infrastructure, and delayed response to recent storms that have hamstrung residents and businesses with downed wires and power outages lasting for days.

The company, in turn, blames the weather.

Rain, snow, and wind are nothing new in New England, and most have learned to cope with the elements. Yet this community of 17,000 has virtually ground to a halt twice in three months - first when Tropical Storm Irene blew through in August, followed by last weekend’s snowstorm that disabled nine out of 12 lines in National Grid’s massive Union Loop system that services a dozen communities.

The latest outage hit 90 percent of Foxborough’s homes and businesses, with some still without power Wednesday. By Friday, all service had been restored, but residents and officials are still looking for answers.

Selectmen are holding a public forum Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Foxborough High School auditorium, where National Grid representatives will answer questions and hear concerns about the spate of outages, and what changes are planned so they don’t occur again. Students will provide child care.

Town Manager Kevin Paicos says he wants the town to establish its own electric power company. He and other town officials are closely following legislation on Beacon Hill that would allow communities to do just that for the first time in decades.

“We’ve been talking about that for the last three days,’’ he said.

Another bill, filed by state Representative Dan Winslow, a Republican from neighboring Norfolk, calls for power companies to rebate ratepayers two days’ worth of costs for every day of an outage.

In an interview, National Grid’s Massachusetts president, Marcy Reed, conceded that some of the company’s infrastructure is dozens of years old, but said that when regularly maintained the equipment has a 60-plus-year life expectancy.

Workers trim tree limbs as well as they can, but the power lines suffered devastating damage from downed branches largely because trees on both sides are too close to the right-of-way, she said.

“We do everything in our power to trim the trees that we are allowed to touch,’’ she said.

Reed said workers responded promptly to the latest crisis, but initial work was deep in the woods on the main Union Loop lines, so residents may not necessarily have noticed. Crews were called in from as far as Texas and Nova Scotia, she said.

“You have to fix the backbone first before you can fix the streets,’’ she said. “We pulled up a quarter of a million customers in 48 hours. We’ve done a great job.’’

Following Irene, National Grid assigned 100 company liaisons to work with towns to improve communication and help resolve problems. Paicos said it is a good first step, but only lifts the utility’s grade from an F to a B- or C+.

Reed pointed to the rarity of some of this year’s storms, including tornadoes that struck parts of the state in June.

“These are the freak things we are dealing with,’’ she said.

National Weather Center meteorologist Glenn Field said it may look like Foxborough is being hit harder than other areas, but there is no weather-related reason for it.

Foxborough did record more snow than its neighbors last weekend, racking up 6.5 inches compared with 2 or 3 inches in some nearby towns, Field said, after a focused band of precipitation hung over it for a few hours.

“A difference of 3 and 6 inches made a difference in this case,’’ he said. “Trees were split in half and a lot of limbs fell on the Union Loop.’’

With Irene, he said, sustained winds of 70 miles per hour wreaked havoc on trees.

“In my personal opinion, things just go in cycles,’’ said Field, who happens to live in Foxborough. “They can be really bad, or really good.’’

But something has to be done about the power failures, Paicos said. Like a number of other communities, Foxborough has been working on a complaint to file with the state Department of Public Utilities over National Grid’s response to Irene. It will now work one up for last weekend’s storm, he said, while acknowledging that he holds out little hope for change.

“Total the town’s costs for this and it’s about $20,000 to $30,000,’’ he said, “but add up all the costs to homeowners for this storm and it’s astronomical - in the millions.

“People ask us how we ensure this doesn’t happen again, and the only thing we can do is hold them accountable.’’

State Attorney General Martha Coakley has launched a review of how utility companies manage their resources and what problems need to be fixed.

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