PSC Takes Some Blame
For the first time, the head of the Public Service Commission admitted publicly on Monday that the agency "absolutely" bears some responsibility for last summer's nineday power blackout in Western Queens.
A state Assembly task force organized by Assemblymember Michael Gianaris earlier arrived at that same conclusion after studying the causes of the power failure which victimized more than 100,000 residents and thousands of businesses in Astoria, Long Island City, Woodside, Sunnyside and East Elmhurst.
Commenting after PSC Chair Patricia Acampora finally corroborated Gianaris' task force findings regarding her agency, Gianaris stated: "It's encouraging that the Public Service Commission is finally recognizing its role in last year's debacle."
However, Gianaris warned that there is a real possibility of further Con Ed power problems this summer.
"Even though it's freezing today," Gianaris said in Albany on Monday, where Acampora testified before an Assembly committee, "in four months, we'll be having heat waves.
"Not one change has been made to our electricity distribution system to give me confidence that things will be better next summer than they were last summer."
Looking back to last July, the PSC had concluded in a draft report issued last month that Con Ed's failure to adequately maintain and operate its electrical network in Long Island City was the principal cause of the blackout. Some 174,000 residents were left without power or light, even though Con Ed claimed only about 100,000 people were affected by the power failure.
Looking ahead to next summer and beyond, a PSC official agreed with Gianaris' fears of other possible problems. The official, James T. Gallagher, the top PSC electricity official, warned at the hearing of "significant weaknesses" in Con Ed's electrical system.
"Many of these weaknesses could lead to similar or worse problems in the future if not corrected now," Gallagher warned.
Gallagher said he had been given "preliminary general assurance" by Con Ed official Louis L. Rana that the PSC's most critical recommendations would be acted on by June 1.
Monday's hearing in Albany before the Assembly Committees on Energy and on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions also brought out another sore point- whether Con Ed should be permitted to recover $32 million from its customers, including those directly affected by the blackout.
Acampora, a former Assemblymember from Long Island, explained to the committees that Con Ed had agreed to absorb $60 million in costs related to customer reimbursements and non-capital expenses that were caused by the blackout.
But, she said, Con Ed would seek to recover $32 million in capital expenditures from its customers because it sees these as normal plant additions.
This issue and the question of whether Con Ed had met its responsibilities under state law still bothers Gianaris and other committee members. They pressed Acampora about a petition they had submitted to her last September regarding holding a "prudency proceeding" to explore those issues.
If a prudency hearing finds that Con Ed did not act with prudence, the utility could be subject to huge penalties. In fact, the PSC's own staff urged such a proceeding in its draft report on the power blackout, issued on January 17.
After being asked about such a hearing several times, Acampora responded that her agency would not take up the question of a prudency hearing until April or May, after the public has had an opportunity to comment on the commission's final report on the blackout.
Committee members said they hoped they could get answers from Con Ed officials on why Con Ed so readily spends huge amounts of money on advertisements to burnish the giant utility's image yet tries to have its customer's pay for its errors and poor performance which caused so much grief last summer and resulted in many small businesses being forced to close.