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NY seeks huge fines against ConEd, Central Hudson for Tropical Storm Isaias response
The sights and sounds as Tropical Storm Isaias hits Westchester and Putnam Aug. 4, 2020 Rockland/Westchester Journal News
ALBANY ¨C New York regulators are seeking $137 million in total fines against ConEd, Orange & Rockland and Central Hudson for?failing to adequately respond to Tropical Storm Isaias, which left more than 1.5 million utility customers without power in August.
The utility companies, however, will soon get the opportunity to dispute the fines and?seek a lower amount.
The state Department of Public Service issued an interim?report Thursday on?the utilities' response to the Aug. 4 tropical storm, which hammered much of downstate New York with wind gusts that exceeded 70 miles per hour in some areas.
The report found the utilities struggled to obtain additional work crews as the forecast shifted and showed Isaias would be more severe than originally anticipated in New York, which contributed to long delays in restoring power.
It also faulted the companies for failing to adequately communicate with their customers experiencing power outages, citing issues with their websites in the aftermath of the storm and?accusing them of failing to follow state rules that lay out how quickly they are required to contact customers.
Now, the state Public Service Commission ¡ª which regulates utilities in New York ¡ª is seeking a $102 million fine against ConEd, which provides service to New York City and Westchester County.
The commission is also seeking a $19 million fine against Orange & Rockland (a ConEd subsidiary) and $16 million against Central Hudson, which serve the Hudson Valley.
Utilities can contest the fines
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo touted the potential fines on a conference call with reporters Thursday, saying they send a message to utility companies that they have to perform even in weather emergencies.
"I'm tired of the back and forth and I'm going to do everything I can to make sure New Yorkers are compensated and certainly that New Yorkers are not paying for service they're not getting," Cuomo said.
Under state law, utilities can be fined $100,000 or .02 of 1% of their annual intrastate gross operating revenue for each separate offense when responding to electricity outages. The three utilities companies were cited for more than 30 offenses each.
Now, the utilities will have an opportunity to defend their performance through the Public Service Commission's process, which opens the door for a potential settlement that could lower the fines before they're imposed. They have 30 days to respond to the commission's order.
ConEd and Central Hudson issued separate statements suggesting?they will contest the fines the state is seeking.
¡°We will review the orders and respond while continuing to improve our storm response and maintaining our industry-leading reliable service,"??ConEd's statement read. "Following Isaias, our women and men worked 24-7 to restore more than 300,000 customers."
Central Hudson's statement noted it had not yet seen the order containing the potential penalties, which was approved Thursday but had not yet been posted to the Public Service Commission's website as of 3 p.m.
"(W)e look forward to the opportunity to show cause why these penalties should not be assessed," according to the Central Hudson statement.?"We take our responsibility in responding to major storm events seriously, and Tropical Storm Isaias is no exception."
Cuomo said the state is "serious" about imposing a substantive penalty.
"They have a right to contest," said Cuomo, who is pushing a bill to significantly increase the penalty cap.?"Let them contest. We will remain diligent in pursuit of the penalties because we are serious."
Power outages were widespread
The interim report from the Department of Public Service laid out the scale of power outages after Isaias hit New York on Aug. 4.
At its peak, about 1 million customers were without customers at once, including hundreds of thousands each in New York City, the Hudson Valley and Long Island. A total of 1.5 million were without power at some point.
ConEd peaked at about 290,000 customers without power at once, with Orange & Rockland hitting 138,000 and Central Hudson hitting 110,000, according to the report.
The outages stretched on for days, with ConEd not hitting full restoration until August 12, according to the report. Orange & Rockland wasn't fully restored until Aug. 11, while Central Hudson had everyone back up by Aug. 8.
In a prior filing with the Public Service Commission, ConEd noted Isaias caused more than 11,000 downed trees in New York City alone, which damaged the utility's power lines and made restoration more difficult.
The company also noted the initial forecasts shifted significantly in the days before the storm?hit New York, which complicated staffing efforts.?
A total of 330,000 ConEd customers were without power at some point, which was more than any other storm in the company's history except for Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
."Prior to the storm¡¯s westward swing, the Company expected that it would have a staffing 'buffer'?that would expedite restoration," according to report ConEd filed Oct.1 3 with the state.?"Even though the storm was more severe than expected, the Company¡¯s preparation placed it in a strong position to respond to the extensive damage.
In its own filing, Central Hudson noted its main internet provider, located in the city of Poughkeepsie, suffered infrastructure damage by 3 p.m. the day of the storm, which knocked out its website and hindered communication efforts.
"In total, more than 1,000 field personnel were mobilized during this event including employees, contractors, and mutual assistance personnel," the company wrote in its report to the state.?"Overall, Central Hudson accomplished a safe and efficient restoration following the severe storm that caused major damage to our electric facilities."
Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@Gannett.com or on Twitter at?@JonCampbellGAN.
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