Ratings vary for response by CL&P

Hartford - Connecticut Light & Power received mixed reviews for its performance in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene during a legislative hearing Monday on utility companies' storm response.

Jeff Butler, CL&P's president and chief operating officer, told legislators that his utility's preparation and response to Irene was "appropriate and strong," considering how the storm wrought more damage to CL&P's grid than any storm in the company's 94-year history, including Hurricane Gloria in 1985, Hurricane Bob in 1991 and the powerful Hurricane of 1938.

CL&P said approximately 1 million customers were affected by the Aug. 28 storm, with 671,000 peak customer outages. A Northeast Utilities company, CL&P has just over 1.2 million customers in 149 towns and is the largest utility in the state, followed by United Illuminating.

"In nine days, we safely restored as many outages as we typically would in 11 months," Butler said.

But not everyone was so impressed.

Lebanon First Selectman Joyce Okonuk told legislators that CL&P's lag time in organizing and dispatching repair crews to her town was "unacceptable." CL&P serves roughly two-thirds of Lebanon, and many of those customers waited for more than a week for power to return.

Okonuk said CL&P poorly managed its repair crews and said the company needs to improve its communication with municipal officials as well as its own employees during major operations.

Okonuk was among several first selectmen from across the state who described hours-long periods in which CL&P workers were in town and apparently ready to work but had to wait for orders to start.

She also recalled an instance in which a CL&P town liaison was told that six repair crews would be in Lebanon on a certain day, but only one crew showed up.

State Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, said she drove through Lebanon and observed the widespread outages. Groton Utilities' Bozrah Light & Power Co. serves one-third of Lebanon and had restored power to all of its customers by Wednesday night, three days after Irene struck the region.

"I frankly think CL&P couldn't do a worse job than they did if they tried," Prague said. "I don't know how many more mistakes they could have made."

Monday marked the first of two hearings on the Irene response. Legislators also heard testimony from public safety officials and phone and cable service providers. Members of the general public will have a chance to speak at a 9 a.m. Monday in the Legislative Office Building.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration is undertaking a separate inquiry into the storm response efforts.

CL&P officials did not speak in detail during Monday's hearing about whether the utility intends to seek a rate increase to cover its expenses from Irene. Any such increase would require the approval of the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

In an interview with The Day, David Radanovich, CL&P's communications manager, did not rule out the possibility of a future rate increase to address storm-related expenses. But he said the company has "no plan to immediately go in and ask for any kind of change at this point."

Radanovich said CL&P could pursue other strategies through the regulatory authority to help offset the expenses, although he declined to speculate on what those options could be.

"There is a process in place and we will work through that process," he said.

A CL&P official said it typically takes about six months to review an application for a rate increase. The process also includes multiple public hearings across the state.

"I think it would be inappropriate and unfair to ratepayers for CL&P to make such a request, but I'm sure they will," State Rep. Tom Reynolds, D-Ledyard, said during a break in Monday's hearing.

State Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, forecast significant public resistance if CL&P were to seek higher rates because of the storm. "It's hard for me to believe there's going to be a lot of sympathy for that," she said.

Butler, the CL&P president, estimated last month that restoring power to customers would cost the utility $75 million. He said at Monday's hearing that so-called "hazard trees" standing outside the ordinary tree-trimming perimeter were to blame for a number of the Irene outages.

Under current procedures, these types of trees, which are often diseased, wouldn't necessarily be cut down during CL&P's five-year trimming schedule because they are too far away from the wires.

CL&P officials listed several "early observations for improvement." They said state and utility companies could re-evaluate their tree-trimming policies and perhaps increase the frequency of trimmings to every four years. They also said CL&P should review its procedures for clearing roads, requesting "mutual aid" backup repair crews from other states' utilities, and communicating with customers and municipal officials.

Paul Yatcko, director of utilities for Groton Utilities, testified that his repair crews restored service to every Groton Utilities customer by the evening of Aug. 31. During questioning, Yatcko said it was likely easier for his company to restore service than it was for CL&P because Groton Utilities has fewer customers in a more concentrated geographic area.

A Connecticut Conference of Municipalities survey with responses from about 56 cities and towns found that local officials' evaluations of their communication with utility companies were "evenly divided" between "excellent," "very good," "good" and "needs improvement."

More than 90 percent of the responding municipalities rated the performance of their "municipal utility liaison" as "excellent" to "very good."

j.reindl@theday.com

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