The Massachusetts Attorney General is getting tough with the state’s three largest investor owned utility companies. Martha Coakley is proposing hefty fines over their responses to two major storms last year. She is also calling for a change in the standards used to measure the performance of the utility companies. WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill reports
Attorney General Martha Coakley is seeking financial penalties from National Grid, NSTAR, and Western Massachusetts Electric Company. The public utilities companies that incurred much public wrath after Tropical Storm Irene and the freak October snowstorm left nearly a million people in Massachusetts without power. In the case of the snowstorm, power was out in some places for up to nine days.
Coakley, last week recommended National Grid be fined $4.6 million for its response to Irene and $11.7 million for the snowstorm. Earlier, she recommended a $4 million dollar fine from WMECO for the October snow storm. The proposed fine against NSTAR will be announced within a week.
Coakley said the bottom line is the public deserves better from the public utilities.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, which has done its own investigation into the storm responses by the utilities, has the authority to enforce the penalties. In the case of National Grid, the $16 million would be a record fine.
Coakley said the recommended fines are based on an investigation that found National Grid had insufficient staffing to respond to reports of downed wires. She also faulted the utility for failing to communicate adequately with municipal officials, first responders and the general public about the progress of power restoration efforts. She said the company’s storm predicting methods need to be updated.
Coakley faulted WMECO for woefully inadequate communications with local emergency management officials and its customers.
The utility companies can all be expected to challenge the fines with DPU as made clear by WMECO spokesperson Sandra Ahearn.
Ahearn said WMECO has increased its tree-trimming efforts to prevent the kind of widespread outages that followed the October snow storm.
Attorney General Coakley also wants to change the standards used to grade the performance of utility companies. She said there is a disconnect between the high marks the companies get for their storm preparations and maintenance and the reality of what happens when storms hit.
Under state law, fines paid by utility companies can not be passed onto to ratepayers. Coakley said her office supports legislation to return penalties to the utilities customers. As it stands now, the money from fines goes into the state’s general fund.