Coakley wants penalty against utility over storm response

Bryan Cohen Aug. 8, 2012, 1:47pm


BOSTON (Legal Newsline) - Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley announced on Tuesday that she has filed a brief with the Department of Public Utilities regarding NSTAR's allegedly inadequate storm response.

Coakley alleges that the utility company NSTAR failed to adequately prepare, respond and communicate during an October snowstorm and Tropical Storm Irene. She requested that the DPU, which has the authority to impose fines, impose a $9.7 million fine against the company.

Coakley alleges that NSTAR violated three storm response obligations under the company's emergency response plan, including failing to respond to public safety calls about downed wires, failing to communicate effectively with customers and municipalities throughout the storms and failing to identify the projected level of severity of both storms.

"NSTAR's preparation for these storms was woefully inadequate and much of the power loss suffered by hundreds of thousands of customers could have been avoided," Coakley said. "The company's slow response to downed wires created a dangerous public safety situation for towns across the commonwealth. These fines are intended to hold NSTAR accountable for these failings and to send a message that customers deserve better in future storms."

If the penalty is granted, the fine cannot be passed onto customers of NSTAR and must be borne by the company's shareholders. Penalties assessed by the DPU would be paid to the state's general fund.

Coakley's office signed a Storm Response Bill on Monday that includes an emergency preamble allowing the bill to go into effect immediately. The law states that all future storm fine recommendations will be paid back to ratepayers using a credit.

"This bill ensures that direct rate relief is provided to consumers who have been negatively affected by poor emergency storm response," Coakley said. "It will also greatly assist our efforts to protect ratepayers and ensure public safety by requiring utilities to implement better defined plans to communicate with customers and local municipal officials regarding response efforts during major storms at reasonable costs."

Coakley alleges that while each storm was classified as a level five event, NSTAR failed to adjust staffing levels or respond accordingly. As a result, emergency calls about wires that were downed did not get responded to in a reasonable amount of time due to inadequate staffing. Officials also allegedly failed to recognize that the number of customers affected was two to five times the average amount for a level five event including 227,000 customers during the October snowstorm and 506,000 customers during Tropical Storm Irene. NSTAR defines a level five event as 100,000 customers without power for more than 72 hours.

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