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Hudson Valley News

PSC Issues Findings, Proposes Penalties After Investigating Utilities Post-Storm

O&R on scene after Tropical Storm Isaias damage, August 2020
Courtesy of Orange and Rockland Utilities
O&R on scene after Tropical Storm Isaias damage, August 2020

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday announced that a state commission completed its investigation into what he calls an apparent failure of electric utilities to adequately prepare for and respond to a recent tropical storm. Three of New York’s largest utilities face potential fines totaling millions of dollars. Two could see their licenses revoked.

Following Tropical Storm Isaias on August 4, Governor Cuomo directed the Public Service Commission to perform an expedited investigation into utility performance. Cuomo, a Democrat, says the PSC has completed the initial phase of that work.

“The three utilities have been penalized $137 million, which is one of the most significant penalties,” says Cuomo. “Con Ed, $102 million for 33 violations; Orange & Rockland, $19 million for 38 violations; Central Hudson, $16 million for 32 violations. They have a right to contest. Let them contest. We will remain diligent in pursuit of the penalties because we are serious. We are serious.”

Con Edison and O&R are also facing potential license revocation. Spokesperson Diane Rainey says O&R will review and respond to the PSC’s order.

“In response to Tropical Storm Isaias, our women and men worked 24/7 to restore nearly 140,000 customers,” says Rainey. “We mobilized more than 500 additional restoration workers, issued estimated service restoration times to customers who were out of service for more than 48 hours and communicated via our outage map, briefings with government leaders, social media, texts, emails and dozens of press releases and interviews.”

The PSC order issued Thursday identified numerous apparent violations, including those related to storm classifications, storm restoration staffing and assessment, call center staffing and response, and inadequate communications such as inaccurate and untimely estimated restoration times, faulty websites, and the failure to contact registered life support equipment customers. Spokesman John Maserjian says Central Hudson will review the order and proposed penalties.

“And we look forward to the opportunity to show cause as to why these penalties should not be assessed. We take our responsibility in responding to major storms very seriously, and Tropical Storm Isaias is no exception. It was one of the most severe storms to impact our region, yet our restoration was completed quickly and safely,” Maserjian says. “We restored power to 98 percent of our impacted customers in three days, and our communications and outreach were robust, consistent and timely.”

The Poughkeepsie-based utility’s website was down at the beginning of the outages.

“Unfortunately, our internet provider lost communications due to a tree that had fallen across their fiber optic cable, and that cut our internet to our customers,” says Maserjian.

He says Central Hudson activated its backup data center at the time and has since taken steps to prevent a repeat. Thousands of customers in the Hudson Valley remained without power days after the storm. Local elected officials at the time tore into the power companies as residents’ tensions were already frayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, many were working from home and, in addition to power outages, cell phone and Internet service was impacted. The PSC continues to investigate telecommunications utilities for their response to the storm.

Con Edison spokesman Allan Drury, in a statement, says, in part, “We will review the orders and respond while continuing to improve our storm response and maintaining our industry-leading reliable service. Following Isaias, our women and men worked 24-7 to restore more than 300,000 customers. We mobilized more than 2,200 additional restoration workers, issued estimated service restoration times to nearly all customers who were out of service for more than 48 hours and communicated via our outage map, briefings with government leaders, social media, texts, e-mails and dozens of press releases and interviews.” Con Edison serves a large portion of Westchester County.

The utilities have 10 days to respond to the recommendations on how to improve their response and restoration efforts, and 30 days to respond about a potential penalty. Again, Central Hudson’s Maserjian:

“We amassed a field force of more than 700 line and tree workers, one of the largest that we’ve ever assembled, plus hundreds in support roles,” Maserjian says. “We addressed nearly 2,000 damage locations and, as our restorations were completed, we released many of these crews to upper New York state utilities to assist in their restoration efforts.”

Cuomo announced that a newly appointed special counsel for ratepayer protection will hold public forums and submit evidence to the PSC on the harm the utilities' failures caused residents, businesses and localities.

“Also, I’m working with the Long Island delegation to put forward a bill that will remove the caps on the penalties and give the PSC greater determination in assessing penalties by looking at the actual harm and misconduct. Right now, we have a legal cap on penalties, which makes no sense to me,” Cuomo says. “Also, the new law makes it clear that the penalty comes out of the shareholders profits, and then, once the shareholders start to pay a penalty, maybe we’ll get their attention.”

In addition to the Hudson Valley, the storm left lengthy power outages in New York City and on Long Island, where PSEG Long Island was also investigated, with the PSC recommending enforcement actions.

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