PURA’s final report: Towns’ concerns about storm response are heeded

The Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) has released its final decision regarding the performance of Connecticut Light and Power Company's, and other utility companies', response during Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm last year.

Among the recommendations in the report are those provided by the four towns that gained intervenor status in the proceedings before PURA. Wilton was joined in this effort by Ridgefield, Redding and Newtown.

"I am pleased with the report and our impact on the outcome of their recommendations," said Redding First Selectman Natalie Ketcham on Tuesday.

PURA concluded CL&P's performance after the 2011 storms "was deficient and inadequate" in the areas of outage and service restoration, preparation of personnel, support of its municipal liaison program, development and communication of restoration times to customers, as well as overall communication with customers, other service providers and municipalities, "as to warrant regulatory sanction."

The authority also concluded, according to a release from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, that because of CL&P's failure to obtain adequate assistance in advance of the October storm, its response to that storm was deficient.

"It's important to point out CL&P has already taken several steps to improve our emergency response procedures, as we recently demonstrated in the four-day statewide preparedness drill where we received positive feedback from state and local officials," said Mitch Gross, CL&P spokesman. "We continue to make significant upgrades to our system and improvements to our Emergency Response Plan that will have a positive impact on our ability to restore power in future storms."

PURA released its draft decision on July 17. Parties to this matter then had the opportunity to file written comments on the draft and make oral arguments in front of PURA.

Attorney Monte Frank of Cohen and Wolf, who represents the four intervenor towns, then filed "exceptions" to the draft decision on their behalf. The final decision reflects "two material improvements from the draft decision on issues we raised as exceptions to the draft and oral arguments," Ms. Ketcham said.

PURA took another look at CL&P's Sunday night, Aug. 28, 2011 restoration effort during Tropical Storm Irene and "its faulty and negative repercussions," she said. PURA found CL&P's actions "deficient."

Because of another exception, PURA added language to its final report regarding the high priority that is needed to open public roads, Ms. Ketcham said.

"PURA found CL&P deficient in this area and are requiring a new emergency response plan from CL&P to put a higher priority on cut, clear and make safe," she said.

The ruling also dictates CL&P formulate a plan by July 1 of each year to establish a heightened state of readiness in anticipation of major storms.

"I'm particularly pleased to see PURA emphasized the need for CL&P to plan for line worker resources," Ms. Ketcham said. "They are ordered to prepare a first report by Oct. 1, 2012 demonstrating a line worker workforce available to CL&P during the first 48 hours of a regional event."

This has been a particular concern of Wilton First Selectman Bill Brennan, who was out of the office this week.

"We feel the key areas are making safe these roads and getting the trees and lines untangled," he said last month, after the draft report was issued. "They simply have resisted having additional people available," he said of CL&P. "That has always been one of the issues — what are your preparations."

Ms. Ketcham said the workforce would include the electric company's own lineworkers, those from its sister companies, and contractors. PURA requires that CL&P state the mutual assistance organizations to which it belongs and to state the likely resources those organization are capable of delivery in assistance in storm recovery, she added.

"I believe this goes to the heart of the problem we experienced last October. There were simply not enough boots on the ground to get power restored," Ms. Ketcham said.

Local electricians

A request by the four towns that wasn't included in PURA's final decision — but is still under study by CL&P — is the idea of training local electricians to help speed up road clearing.

"They're still reviewing that," said Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi of CL&P. "What we'd asked is the training of local electricians that could be assigned to our highway crews and dispatched to areas with wires and trees down to make it safe from the electricity perspective and allow the highway department to remove the debris from the road."

In their critique of the PURA draft, the four towns had sought greater local control over decision-making. They wrote: "All decisions for power restoration should be made at the lowest possible level (locally)."

And they challenged the priorities the utility set during the two storms.

"The 'most meters restored' approach must be abandoned," they say. "Priorities must be established by the towns so that critical infrastructure and special-needs residents are restored first."

"People wanted CL&P to be held accountable and that's why we participated in the process to make sure it was," said Ms. Ketcham.

In the decision, PURA also said it retains authority to consider storm response at the time CL&P seeks recovery for costs related to the 2011 storms. At the current time CL&P has no rate requests pending before PURA, nor has it submitted any request for recovery of storm-related costs.

The final decision provides an incentive for CL&P to strengthen its preparation for future storms, with PURA noting that it will "consider and weigh the extent to which CL&P has recognized its shortcomings and taken concrete, measurable steps to embrace the need for aggressive, extensive restructuring of both its attitude toward storm management and establishment of new practices for execution of future storm response," the DEEP release said.

In a recent press release, CL&P listed "the many steps" it has taken "to significantly improve emergency preparedness. Among them is strengthening its town liaison program, revising its company emergency plan and procedures "to cover significantly larger events" and "significantly enhancing" its tree trimming program.

PURA also reviewed the impact of the 2011 storms on the providers of telecommunications services, cable television, gas, and water companies of Connecticut. While, overall, it was determined these industries were less affected than the electric industry, and for the most part maintained adequate service during the overall outages, the authority made recommendations in this decision and created orders to improve service reliability for future events.