Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Politicians Showing Off With National Grid Fine

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on July 30, 2012

By Bill Gouveia

Attorney General Martha Coakley announced last week her office is seeking penalties in excess of $16 million from National Grid for the utility's poor reaction to two storms last year which left hundreds of thousands of people without power for upwards of a week. The Department of Public Utilities will take the recommendation under advisement, and will ultimately decide if the fine is instituted.

The proposed punishment is in response to National Grid's actions in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene last August and a surprise major snowstorm last October. State and local officials complained that National Grid was not prepared, did not communicate with municipal officials properly and promptly, and did not staff their operations well enough to quickly restore power.

Here in this area and across the state, public officials seem to be happy with the action. Attleboro Mayor Kevin Dumas as well as many local managers and selectmen have stated the utility giant needed to be taught a lesson, and they hope the huge fine - which must come from shareholder profits and not charges to customers according to the AG's office - will help prevent future long-term outages. National Grid issued a statement calling the proposed fine "extreme".

There is no doubt the response of National Grid in both instances was simply not acceptable. They made serious errors in both judgment and execution which resulted in some dangerous and uncomfortable situations for citizens. In addition they failed to keep local authorities properly informed, and that forced public safety departments in many municipalities into unsafe and precarious positions. They deserve much blame, criticism, and even punishment.

But quite frankly, the proposed fine is ridiculous on several fronts. It serves much more of a political purpose than a practical or remedial one. It will do little to make things up to those who suffered, and even less to prevent similar situations in the future. What it does accomplish is giving state and local officials the chance to look tough and perhaps protect and improve their image after the beatings they took last August and October. This action is for them, not for the residents and ratepayers.

The money paid in fines would not be returned to the ratepayers - that is not allowed under state law. It would be paid into the state's general fund, and no doubt disappear into the abyss of spending our legislature is famous for creating. And even though National Grid would be legally bound not to pass the expense on to their customers, does anyone really believe that would not eventually be the case? Why should the ratepayers essentially pay once again for what they endured?

That is not to say National Grid should not be held accountable for their actions, or lack of same. But fining them does little to address those problems. Write new regulations, change the rules, impose requirements that will ensure future response will be vastly superior. But don't just pay lip service to the problem and allow local officials to let out some frustration.

As a mayor or a selectman, you can't go wrong criticizing a major utility. They are not very popular, and can't vote for you. So whether your criticism is valid or not (and much if not most of what has been said certainly is), it usually helps you politically at home. That is a fact local leaders understand quite well.

But it has to be remembered that the outages in question were caused by two pretty significant natural disasters. Tropical Storm Irene was as close to a hurricane as we really want to see, and the size and timing of the October storm was certainly a bit surprising. The damage was severe and far beyond what storms normally cause. National Grid called in crews from all over, but the area affected by the storms ranged far and wide. These were not your usual storms.

It is very tempting to cheer the fine assessed National Grid, especially if you are a local leader they let down last year. But punishment is not what citizens really want to see. They want to know that when their power goes out again - and it will - their utility company will fix it faster and more efficiently.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at aninsidelook@aol.com and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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