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Conn. Senate OKs bill on utilities' storm response

Associated Press Modified: May 5, 2012 at 5:00 pm •  Published: May 5, 2012

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The state Senate on Saturday approved a wide-ranging bill that attempts to address many of the problems that developed last year when Connecticut was hit by the remnants of Hurricane Irene in August and again by an October snowstorm, both of which left thousands without electricity for days.

While lawmakers said there's no way to stop future outages, they believe the legislation should help make them more bearable for residents and improve the state's ability to function following a storm.

"I think most people would embrace the fact it will be a better system. We'll be better prepared," said Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Energy and Technology Committee. "We will never be able to stop all outages. That is impossible. But we can and we must do better, and this legislation takes us a long way toward beginning that process."

Under the bill, which passed 34-0, state regulators will be required to establish new performance standards for electric, gas and telecommunications utilities regarding emergency preparation and service restoration when there's an emergency with more than 10 percent of any utility's customers without service for more than 48 consecutive hours.

Regulators must consider standards for minimum staffing and equipment levels for each utility based on the number of customers; targets for recovery and restoration of service; a communication plan between each utility and its customers; and assessments of each utility's ability to rely on mutual aid from other utilities in the region to restore the services.

Other standards relate to utilities' plans for tree-trimming, cutting and removal to reduce outages caused by falling trees and limbs; how a utility's call center is operated; notifications by each utility to state and local officials to coordinate response efforts; and safety standards for a utility's employees, mutual aid crews and private contractors. The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority has until Nov. 1 to submit a report identifying the new standards.

If PURA determines those standards haven't been met, according to the bill, the regulatory agency can level civil penalties against gas and electric distribution companies. Those penalties cannot exceed a total of 2.5 percent of the company's annual distribution revenue.

"As long as those standards are real and fair and responsible, we should hold the utilities accountable if they don't meet them," said Sen. John McKinney, R-Fairfield.

PURA is also required to establish standards for restoring intrastate telecommunications service.

Many of the ideas included in Saturday's bill stem from task forces created by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the General Assembly following the two storms, which left many residents outraged. Fonfara said the vastness of the power outages — more than a million from the remnants of Hurricane Irene and 1.4 million from the October snowstorm — and the breadth of the destruction convinced state and local leaders that Connecticut can no longer accept the status quo for preparation and response to major storms.

"I think the public has spoken," Fonfara said.

The bill still needs approval from the House of Representatives. This year's regular legislative session is scheduled to adjourn at midnight Wednesday.


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