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Blumenthal favors pulling plug on Eversource

Madison — After lambasting Eversource here Monday morning and later meeting with company officials, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., continued to press for changes in company leadership, including the resignation of the chief executive officer, James Judge.

Blumenthal said state utility regulators should consider breaking up Eversource, which has struggled for days to fully restore electrical power in the wake of Tropical Storm Isaias.

“It’s too big to do the job,” Blumenthal said of the company.

On Saturday, he’d called for Judge to resign, as had state Sen. Norm Needleman, the Essex Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee. On Monday, Blumenthal said he insisted that Judge “make refunds to customers, and avoid any rate increase or charge for restoring power.”

“He declined to commit to such action,” Blumenthal said. “In addition to money back to consumers and businesses for their losses, I also told him that there must be leadership changes, including his resignation. Connecticut residents and businesses suffered severe financial harm because of Eversource’s failure to prepare for this storm, and they should be made whole.”

Blumenthal said he will continue to fight for consumer rebates, removal of Eversource’s senior leadership team, and “a complete evaluation of the company’s abjectly poor performance, including possible restructuring of the company.”

Eversource reported Monday that it had restored power to more than 80,000 customers since the previous day, leaving nearly 75,000 customers still without power. It said the restoration of power will be “substantially complete” by 11:59 p.m. Tuesday. The company has nearly 1.3 million customers in Connecticut, more than 700,000 of whom lost power when Isaias hit the state.

“We know how urgently customers need their power restored, especially right now given the pandemic and hot summer weather, and we are making significant progress,” said Craig Hallstrom, Eversource president of regional electric operations.

Eversource continues to assess damage to its electric system, including replacing roughly 550 miles of downed wire, the company said.

Blumenthal visited the North Madison Shopping Center on Route 80, the first of several stops he was scheduled to make Monday. He met with state and local officials and the owners of Roberts Food Center, which had been shut down since last Tuesday, when the storm knocked out the shopping center’s power.

Madison’s first selectwoman, Peggy Lyons, told Blumenthal that about 81% of the town's Eversource customers had lost power, and more than 60 roads had been blocked by downed trees. She said she was concerned that one of the town’s polling locations still was without power the day before a statewide primary election

Bob Fusco, who along with his son, Zach, owns Roberts Food Center — Bob and his father, Robert, founded the store 35 years ago — estimated the business incurred $500,000 in losses, a sum only partially covered by insurance. The store was “stocked to the gills” due to the heavy demand it has been facing amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the Fuscos said the storm caught them off guard, preventing them from arranging to bring in generators.

The store had to pitch between $200,000 and $300,000 worth of merchandise, the Fuscos said. Fortunately, a second store they recently opened in Glastonbury was able to weather the outage.

Bob Fusco said they pay Eversource to deliver the electricity they purchase from an independent contractor, a common arrangement.

Blumenthal called on Eversouce to pay Roberts and other businesses and residential customers for damages and food losses caused by the power outage. He said the response in Connecticut should include the federal government’s assurances of major disaster relief.

“People need help now, not following an investigation, which is well-warranted,” he said. “We’ve got a pandemic, an economic crisis and this power outage. This is unprecedented. … People, families are struggling to survive.”

The state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority has announced it will investigate the preparedness of Eversource and United Illuminating, the companies that provide electricity in the state. Gov. Ned Lamont had called for the probe, questioning the effectiveness of Eversource’s recent investment in infrastructure.

PURA also is reviewing an Eversoure rate hike that took effect July 1, causing many residents' electric bills to spike.

Blumenthal said Eversource only has itself to blame for miscalculating the severity of the storm and deciding to “roll the dice.” He said it planned to only have 400 crews on hand to handle damage caused by downed trees when it needed to have more than 2,500 crews. Based on weather predictions and its experience with a major storm in 2011, Eversource should have known better, he said.

The senator said Eversource has the wherewithal to bear the costs associated with the storm’s aftermath.

“This company is rolling in money,” Blumenthal said. “(Yet) it’s hinting it may charge consumers for the costs of cleanup. That’s intolerable, unacceptable … the height of arrogance. … It’s tantamount to utility malpractice.”

During his Madison visit, Blumenthal said Judge had not responded to the calls for his resignation.

“So far, he’s been invisible,” Blumenthal said. “He should be talking. Where has he been? What is he doing? He should be held accountable.”

Blumenthal said Eversource’s top five executives are paid $40 million a year and that they should be explaining why they failed to better prepare for the storm and what their plan is for providing customers with relief. He said he was concerned that President Trump’s recent executive orders diverting disaster relief funds to unemployment payments would leave the Federal Emergency Management Agency without the resources the state needs for disaster relief.

In a tweet, Blumenthal said, “FEMA funding for our storm costs? Gone. Trump’s illegally seizing FEMA’s $44 billion to pay for his Executive Orders could likely mean no money for CT disaster relief. His autocratic overreach is a disaster. Count the ways.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

 

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