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Analysis | Lawmakers Talk Tough This Time

by Christine Stuart | Nov 11, 2011 12:50pm
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Posted to: Energy, Weather

Christine Stuart file photo

House Speaker Chris Donovan and Rep. Vickie Nardello, co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee

When utility company executives testified at public hearings after Tropical Storm Irene they gave themselves high marks for their response to the storm, and at the time lawmakers seemed reluctant to press them too much harder for answers. This time lawmakers are ready to rumble.

Based on lawmaker’s recent comments regarding Connecticut Light & Power’s response to the October snowstorm, which left 831,000 customers without power for days and in some instances more than a week, it looks like they‘re ready to make sure they get answers.

During the Sept. 19 legislative hearings on Irene lawmakers spared CL&P tough questions and thanked the company’s representatives for their efforts in the aftermath of the storm. At that hearing, most of the criticism came from municipal leaders, who felt they were left in the dark when it came to getting answers from the utility. No specific date has been scheduled, but similar public hearings are expected.

However, it’s hard to ignore the cozy relationship lawmakers have built over the years with Northeast Utilities, CL&P’s parent company. And the AP reports similar rumblings have been made after previous storms and little has changed.

Some signs that lawmakers may be toughing up came earlier this week when Connecticut Light & Power’s parent company Northeast Utilities, offered to create a $10 million fund for customers’ losses. The move was met with harsh criticism by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Sen. President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, called the offer “inadequate.” He said a much fairer figure would be a $50 credit for each affected customer, which would cost CL&P $41.5 million, or about 10.7 percent of CL&P’s $388 million in earnings in 2010.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Thursday that the $10 million fund was a “beginning.” Asked to expand on the statement Malloy declined.

“Clearly as we examine this episode we’re going to learn a lot more about their preparedness and their response,” Malloy said. “For us to pretend a storm of this magnitude would not have created some amount of outage for some period of time is unrealistic.”

Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said this $10 million is a “PR stunt” and “completely inadequate.” He said the NU Foundation money is supposed to go to charity and the state should give it back.

“I think we should say thanks, but no thanks,” McKinney told WTIC AM radio Thursday.

He said CL&P needs to change its management, instead of giving charitable funds to the state to distribute. He said the offer of $10 million isn’t going to make him change his position on the issue and he hopes it doesn’t make Malloy rethink his position on it either.

In addition to calling for an independent review of the utilities response to the storm, Malloy continued to distance himself from CL&P’s management. Asked on Monday what he thought the review would find, Malloy said that, “I presume we’re going to find some degree of malfeasance that may arise to a recoverable action.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers are accepting proposals for a legislative solution to prevent this type of response from happening again in the future. So far no legislative public hearing has been scheduled, but there’s no shortage of panels reviewing the matter and asking questions of Connecticut Light & Power.

“It is clear that our utilities, and CL&P specifically, are not prepared at the present time,” House Speaker Donovan said Thursday. “When health and safety are threatened, and when business is disrupted to the extent it has been, we need answers.”

Over the next couple of weeks the Energy and Technology Committee will be accepting legislative proposals from Democrats, Republicans, Attorney General George Jepsen, and the Malloy administration to see if it can’t begin to craft legislation to ameliorate the impact of future storms, both in terms of personal expense and public safety.

The co-chairs of the Energy and Technology Committee are also expected to ask the Public Utility Regulatory Authority to establish performance benchmarks and order an independent audit by a firm with experience in electric company management. The issues it wants PURA to focus on includes minimum staffing levels, communication protocols, tree trimming policies, and penalties for long outages.

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