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Hefty fines for Mass. utilities for storm response

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 11, 2012 at 2:16 pm •  Published: December 11, 2012

"We strongly disagree with the department and are disappointed that they dismissed the tireless effort put forth by our employees to respond to customers after these historic storms," said Werner Schweiger, NStar's president, in a statement announcing the company's intention to appeal.

Irene alone damaged 80 percent of the NStar's overhead circuits, Schweiger said, forcing the utility to essentially rebuild its power grid even as it was trying to restore electricity.

Peter Clarke, president of WMECO, said his company also strongly disagreed with the findings, saying it responded to the emergencies in a "safe, responsible and methodical way under extremely difficult conditions."

Berwick did praise the utilities for a stronger response to Sandy. That storm did not cause the same level of damage in Massachusetts as in several other northeastern states.

Attorney General Martha Coakley said the penalties, while smaller than the combined $30 million she had sought against the companies, sent a "clear signal" that utilities would be held accountable for failures in preparing for and responding to major outages.

"Our investigation found that the utilities' preparation for these storms was woefully inadequate and their slow responses to downed wires created dangerous public safety situations across the (state)," Coakley said. She also supported a recommendation by the DPU for a future review of all service quality standards.

A 2009 state law authorized regulators to impose fines for storm response. Earlier this year, lawmakers voted to require that any future penalties be returned to customers in the form of rate relief. Utilities can decide whether to return the money through refund checks or credits on future bills.

The steepest penalty against a utility in a previous, non-storm related case was $8 million against National Grid in 2009, officials said.

"Regulated utilities must be accountable to the residents they serve," Gov. Deval Patrick said Tuesday. "I trust (the penalties) will encourage the utilities to refocus their efforts on preparation for and response to weather events in the future."