Mass. utilities contesting millions in penalties over storm response

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Western Massachusetts Electric Company (WMECo) and NSTAR Electric intend to appeal a ruling issued by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities assessing millions of dollars in fines for their storm response in major disasters last fall.

WMECo contends it deployed more than a thousand resources to restore power around the clock, including hundreds of crews and other support personnel, completing its response to emergencies, damage assessment activities and power restoration in a safe, responsible and methodical way under extremely difficult conditions. NSTAR claims it was one of the first investor-owned utilities to restore power to its customers in both storms and was able to send 76 line workers to assist National Grid and WEMCo.

"The amount of devastation our system sustained last fall cannot be understated -- with an estimated 80 percent of our overheard circuits damaged after Irene alone," said Werner Schweiger, president of NSTAR. "We were essentially rebuilding the electric system as we restored power, and the penalties assessed today are simply not in line with the realities of getting the job done."

The PUC has said that the utilities followed their emergency response plans, but still assessed penalties for response times to municipal requests for assistance, which were not regulated by the plan.

"The penalties assessed by the department do not follow from any bona fide industry practice, or reasonable operating practice in storm conditions," said Schweiger. "Storms of the magnitude experienced in 2011 had not occurred for over 20 years in our service area, leaving hundreds of poles and transformers in need of replacement. There is no way to shield the overhead electric system from damage when these storms occur."

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