2007-01-24 / Features

Lawmakers Skewer Con Edison

BY JOHN TOSCANO

A Con Ed crew attends to blown manhole cover at the intersection of 30th Ave. and 44th St. at the onset of last year's blackout. A Con Ed crew attends to blown manhole cover at the intersection of 30th Ave. and 44th St. at the onset of last year's blackout. Reacting angrily to a devastating report on Con Edison's abysmal handling of last summer's blackout, local lawmakers blasted the giant utility for communicating poorly with the 174,000 inconvenienced customers and inadequately compensating businesses that barely survived, and called for Con Ed Chief Executive Officer Kevin Burke to resign.

In sharp contrast, Mayor Michael Bloomberg continued to defend Burke and the company's performance and downplayed the possibility of socking it with huge fines, saying this would only lead to higher rates- which may not be the case at all.

Meanwhile, the Public Service Commission (PSC), which issued the blistering report, may charge Con Ed up to $100 million in penalties and prevent it from passing on the penalties to its customers. This could all be determined during a rare prudency proceeding to be held by the PSC which shows the gravity of the situation facing Con Ed.

In the PSC staff report issued last Wednesday, Con Ed's top managers were accused of failing to maintain unreliable equipment; failing to estimate correctly the extent of the damage, how many customers were affected and not communicating properly with them, and deciding not to shut down the entire system at the height of the crisis.

Meanwhile, beleaguered residents in Astoria, Long Island City, Woodside, Sunnyside and Elmhurst, deprived of air conditioning and fans, sweltered in the searing mid-summer heat as their food went bad.

Local businesses suffered just as badly and many closed permanently because of the protracted blackout.

Congressmembers Joseph Crowley and Carolyn Maloney, Assemblymember Michael Gianaris, state Senator George Onorato, and City Councilmembers Peter Vallone Jr. and Eric Gioia lambasted the utility in statements after the PSC report came out, just as they had during the nine-day blackout.

Crowley (D- Queens/The Bronx) stated: "New Yorkers paid dearly for the mistakes of Con Ed that left 174,000 people without power for over a week. Restaurants, grocers, offices and other Queens employers suffered estimated millions of dollars in lost stock and business. That is unacceptable.

"In October, at a briefing with the Con Ed officials on the outages, I recommended that the company communicate more effectively with the public, especially with the immigrant communities that were all but completely neglected."

Now that the PSC has issued its report condemning Con Ed for its failures, Crowley said, "We should focus on steps that the energy company needs to take to prevent another crisis from happening."

Maloney (D- Queens/Manhattan) declared that the PSC report showed that Con Ed failed Western Queens in every possible way from poor maintenance of the power grid to bad communications and horrendous decisionmaking during the height of the blackout. "Looking at this report, you wonder what if anything Con Ed did right during the crisis," she added.

Maloney said the report states that Con Ed's compensation system for businesses and residents is totally inadequate. "This must be addressed as quickly as possible."

The veteran lawmaker said that rather than paying fines to the state, "I'd prefer that Con Ed make major investments in its Western Queens power grid to ensure that this catastrophe never happens again."

Assemblymember Michael Gianaris (D- Astoria) noted that the PSC report "confirms [that] Con Edison management is largely responsible for last summer's blackout."

Gianaris declared, "The fiction that the correct decisions were made by Con Edison executives throughout the crisis has been exposed and the case for change at Con Ed is stronger than ever."

Gianaris also had some criticism for the PSC. He stated, "Today's draft is a step towards correcting the problems that caused last summer's blackout and represents oversight that the PSC should have provided years ago. Unfortunately, the PSC findings come a year too late for the people of Western Queens. Dramatic changes are still needed to avoid a repeat of this debacle."

Gianaris is heading an Assembly Task Force investigating the failures of Con Edison and the PSC during the blackout. The Task Force is expected to release its recommendations before the end of the month.

In response to the PSC draft Onorato stated: "This draft report underscores what so many of us already suspected: Consolidated Edison was indeed 'asleep at the switch' both before and after the horrendous power outage this past summer that left almost 175,000 people in Western Queens sweltering in the dark and the heat for nine days.

"Not only did the utility fail to respond adequately to the blackout itself, it failed to address many pre-existing operations, maintenance and oversight issues in the Long Island City power network.

"The challenge now is two-fold: to make sure that Consolidated Edison cleans up its act to ensure that we never experience this kind of devastation again, and to ensure that ratepayers who have already suffered enough, aren't further punished by what the PSC staff are calling the utility's 'gross disservice' to its customers."

"Vallone said the PSC report clearly showed that the blame for the blackout fell on Con Ed. "It clearly states that Con Ed either 'failed or refused to comprehend' the extent of the damage, which is a nice way of saying that they continually lied to the public," Vallone said. "It also makes clear that the report Con Ed released in October was a complete whitewash and a continuation of Con Ed's attempt to deceive the public."

Now, said Vallone, "We have to hold someone accountable for the devastation that Con Ed caused to our neighborhoods. Kevin Burke must resign, heavy fines should be levied against Con Ed and complete restitution to our neighborhoods must be given."

Vallone then declared that Bloomberg's defense of Con Ed was in error. The lawmaker stated, "Fines can only be passed on to the public if the PSC allows Con Ed to raise its rates, which the PSC has said it will not allow."

Gioia (D- Long Island City) also called for Burke to resign. "You can't legislate honesty, and for Con Ed to move forward, you need a new management team," he stated.

Bloomberg, in taking Con Ed's side in the blackout and the PSC report, credited Burke with doing a "great job" and tried to discourage talk of having Con Ed pay millions of dollars in penalties or compensation by spreading the fear that customers would wind up paying these huge costs.

But Vallone's comments held the opposite view, maintaining that the PSC would not give Con Ed rate increases to recoup the financial damage it had incurred with its botched job.

Con Ed issued a statement after the PSC report came out saying it had already put in place some of the recommendations the PSC made. It also said it had already invested $89 million in emergency response, permanent repairs and other improvements. ¦

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