BOSTON, Mass. — Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is seeking a $16 million fine against National Grid, alleging the power company failed to adequately prepare for and respond to Hurricane Irene and the October 2011 snowstorm.
“Combined, these two storms left nearly a million National Grid customers without power, some for more than a week,” Coakley said in a news release. “National Grid’s preparation for these storms was inadequate and its response was unacceptable. The company compounded these mistakes with a lack of communication to municipalities and first responders about restoration efforts, leaving many of them in the dark as they were making critical decisions around public safety and emergency treatment.”
The pair of storms knocked out power to homes across Central Massachusetts for days. Hurricane Irene, which was downgraded to a tropical storm as it made landfall in Massachusetts, left downed power lines and trees in its wake, delaying the start of school in most towns. The pre-Halloween snowstorm repeated the problems.
The attorney general's office filed a brief with the Department of Public Utilities, which has the authority to impose the fine. The brief alleges National Grid officials violated four separate storm response obligations under its own emergency response plan:
- Failing to communicate effectively with customers and municipalities throughout the two major storms;
- Failing to provide timely damage assessments;
- Failing to properly staff for the two emergency events;
- Failing to respond to public safety calls about downed wires.
The attorney general's office is requesting $4.6 million in fines for the company's response to Irene and $11.7 million for its response to the October 2011 snowstorm.
If granted, the penalties cannot be passed on to National Grid customers and must be borne by shareholders, Coakley said. Under current law, the penalties would be paid to the Commonwealth’s general fund. Coakley has supported pending legislation that would ensure that penalties ordered by DPU would be returned to customers, rather than the general fund.
“The customers suffer from the utilities’ poor performance and outages, and it is the customers who should receive the restitution as well,” Coakley said.
According to the brief, National Grid did not respond to emergency calls about downed wires within a reasonable amount of time partly due to inadequate staffing levels as officials were hesitant to classify either storm as a level five event. A level five event affects more than 113,000 customers and lasts longer than 72 hours. Company officials testified that they do not use computer models or tables to predict a storm’s severity and instead rely on the experience of top-level officials.
During Tropical Storm Irene, electric distribution companies along the East Coast requested an additional 7,000 personnel, but National Grid received only 24 as other utility companies had already contracted the available extra workers from mutual assistance and other resources. The brief alleges that if National Grid had used more scientific methods of predicting storms than merely relying on personal experience, it may have gained a greater level of assistance.
There were approximately 13,000 downed wires during Irene, and approximately 22,000 downed wires during the October 2011 snowstorm, the brief notes.