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December 11th, 2012:

Utilities Face Fines for Poor Performance; Gas Explosion Levels Homes

American Energy Coalition - December 11th, 2012

Two Massachusetts utilities are facing hefty fines for their poor performance during two major storms in 2011. Meanwhile, nine homes are destroyed or damaged following a massive natural gas explosion in West Virginia.

In Massachusetts, MassLive.com reports that three Massachusetts utilities face a combined $24.8 million in fines due to their performance during to Tropical Storm Irene and the October 2011 snowstorm. 

State Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rick Sullivan joined Department of Public Utilities Chair Ann Berwick and DPU Commissioners to announce the findings of DPU's investigation into the electric utilities' responses to Tropical Storm Irene and the October 2011 snowstorm.

National Grid will be fined $10.575 million for the October storm and $8.15 million for Irene, for a total of $18.725 million in fines, according to MassLive. Western Massachusetts Electric Co. is being fined $2 million for its response to the October storm, and NSTAR, which serves eastern Massachusetts, will pay $4.075 million in fines for its performance during both storms. The companies will apply the fines as a credit to customers.

For both storms, National Grid was fined for problems in deploying crews, managing its outage system, assessing damage, downed wires and breakdowns in communications with municipalities and the public, according to MassLive. National Grid is the natural gas utility for thousands of customers in New England and New York. 

"Today's record fines issued by the DPU send a clear signal that utilities will be held accountable for their failures in preparing for and responding to major storms," said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in a statement. "Our investigation found that the utilities' preparation for these storms was woefully inadequate and their slow responses to downed wires created dangerous public safety situations across the Commonwealth. We recommended record penalties against the utilities, and the fines issued today send a clear message that customers deserve better in future storms. We are also pleased that the DPU accepted our recommendation and has ordered that the fines be returned back to the ratepayers."

The state said it fined National Grid $250,000 a day for eight days, or $2 million, for failing to deploy an adequate number of crews to restore power and a general failure to prepare and organize for the October storm. National Grid was also penalized $225,000 a day for nine days, or $2.025 million, for failing to communicate effectively with communities before during and after the October storm. The report said customers had difficulties reaching a National Grid representative by phone and obtaining estimated times for restoring electricity. National Grid was fined $150,000 a day for nine days, or $1.35 million, for breakdowns in communicating with the public during the October snow. National Grid was also assessed $200,000 a day for eight days, or $1.6 million, for neglecting to provide timely and effective damage assessments after the October storm.

Meanwhile, in West Virginia, a massive natural gas line explosion flattened four homes, damaged five others and incinerated an 800-foot swath of Interstate 77, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

The Tuesday afternoon blast melted guardrails, cooked the green enamel off highway signs and burned utility poles, while leaving a huge hole in the highway, the Monitor reported.

Sancha Adkins was driving in the area when a flash alongside the highway caught her eye. "And then I just see this whole huge ball of fire, and I'm slamming on the brakes and pulling off to the side of the road, and then the flames come across the road in front of me," she said, still breathless and nearly hysterical hours later. "I saw parts of something – I don't know what it was, a house maybe? – exploding." A wall of flame roared across the highway about 150 feet in front of her car before she turned and sped away, traveling against traffic along the edge of the highway, she said.

Federal and state agencies are investigating what caused the explosion in the 20-inch transmission line owned by NiSource Inc., parent company of Columbia Gas. Kent Carper, president of the Kanawha County Commission, said flames were shooting some 75 feet into the air before the fire was extinguished. "It sounded like a Boeing 757. Just a roar," he said. "It was huge. You just couldn't hear anything. It was like a space flight."

To read the MassLive article about the utility fines, click here.

To read the Christian Science Monitor article about the West Virginia explosion, click here.

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