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Mass. Senate Backs Bill On Power Outages

By Bob Salsberg, AP
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BOSTON (AP) — A bill that would apply more pressure on utilities to quickly restore power to customers after major weather events was approved Thursday by the Massachusetts Senate.

The debate and unanimous vote on the legislation reflected the intense and still lingering public anger over lengthy power outages that followed Tropical Storm Irene in August and the surprise October snowstorm. Hundreds of thousands of customers lost power during the storms and some waited longer than a week for crews to restore their electricity.

The bill would require that after an initial 24-hour assessment period, utilities would be required to provide customers with twice-daily updates on when their power will be restored after a major storm. Homeowners, businesses and local officials complained about being given little information by the companies on when crews would be arriving in their communities and how long the restoration would take.

The bill would also force each utility to pay a proportionate share into a $460,000 annual fund that would cover the cost of storm response investigations by the state Department of Public Utilities, which regulates the electric companies.

The measure would also assure that if a utility pays a penalty for violating storm response procedures, the money would be returned to ratepayers in the form of credits to their bills.

The DPU is continuing a separate investigation of the utilities’ response to the storms.

Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, said she heard from many frustrated constituents after the storms.

“No one expected power to be restored immediately, but there were people without power for a week or longer in some cases with no knowledge of an anticipated response time,” Murray said in a statement after the vote. “That is unacceptable.”

Sen. Stephen Brewer, D-Barre, said there was more anger in his district over the outages than any other issue he has encountered in more than two decades in the Legislature. He also noted that one person who lived in his district died while waiting for power to be restored after the October snow.

“Enough is enough,” Brewer said during Thursday’s debate.

Attorney General Martha Coakley sent a letter to lawmakers last month asking that any storm-related penalties assessed to utilities be credited to customer’s bills.

“The Senate’s action to advance this storm response bill will greatly assist our continuing efforts to protect ratepayers by holding utilities accountable for safety and reliability at reasonable costs,” Coakley said.

The legislation, which now moves to the House, would also require utilities to designate a liaison in each community during an emergency response period and set up a call center within Massachusetts so consumers can get updated information.

Utilities could also be placed in receivership, under the bill, in cases of “gross negligence” after storms.

Senators defeated a Republican-backed amendment that would have imposed a three-month moratorium on approval of any utility merger, to give the DPU time to complete its storm-response probe. The amendment was directed at the proposed $4.7 billion purchase of NStar by Northeast Utilities, which is currently pending before regulators.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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