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Mass. AG seeking fines against utility for outages

By Shannon Young
Associated Press / July 26, 2012
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BOSTON—National Grid could face more than $16 million in fines for its response to two major storms last year that left hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts customers without power.

Attorney General Martha Coakley said Thursday that her office is seeking penalties against the company because of its inadequate response to Tropical Storm Irene last August and the surprise October snowstorm that pummeled the state.

She is seeking $4.6 million for the utility's response to Irene and $11.7 million for its response to the snowstorm.

The recommendations come on the heels of a monthlong investigation of National Grid's utility standards conducted by the attorney general's office. In response to the findings, Coakley filed her recommendation with the state's Department of Public Utilities, which has the authority to enforce the fines.

"We believe that the performance of Grid during these two events left thousands of people in Massachusetts in the dark, literally and figuratively, for far too long," Coakley said.

The attorney general said her office will seek similar fines against NSTAR and Western Massachusetts Electric Company, public utility companies that also have been criticized for their response during the two storms that left more than 500,000 state customers without electricity.

In response to the attorney general's recommended fines, National Grid released a statement calling them "extreme." The company acknowledged that its response to the two storms failed customers' expectations, saying "there is room for improvement."

National Grid said it address the attorney general's recommendations in a formal response to the public utilities department and will "continue to work to provide the level of service ... customers expect and deserve."

The Department of Public Utilities will take Coakley's recommendations "under serious advisement" and will act in the best interest of consumers, Rick Sullivan, the state's Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary, said in a statement .

The department has launched its own investigations into the utility's storm response in Massachusetts.

According to Coakley's office, National Grid had "unacceptably low staffing levels" and failed to adequately communicate with municipal officials, first responders and customers in the wake of the two storms.

The attorney general says National Grid failed to respond to emergency calls concerning downed wires in a timely manner. She said some of the delay was due to insufficient staffing. There were about 13,000 downed wires in Massachusetts during Irene and 22,000 during the snowstorm.

Coakley's office said the company's response during both storms would have been better if National Grid had used more technical methods of predicting storms rather than just "relying on personal experience."

In addition to a lack of staffing and scientific methods, the attorney general suggests that National Grid failed to communicate helpful information with local officials during the storms, such as when power was turned-off at downed wires. This lack of communication, the office alleges, led municipalities to leave emergency responders at downed wires to protect the public.

The penalties, if granted, cannot be passed on to customers, but must come out of returns to National Grid shareholders. The money would go to the general fund, Massachusetts' largest account. Coakley said her office supports legislation that would allow penalties ordered by the public utilities department to be returned to customers.

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