A.G. Schneiderman To Public Service Commission: Ensure Con Ed Has Plan To Protect Customers Amid Lockout & Heat Wave

Schneiderman: Without Its Regular Outside Plant Workers, Con Edison Cannot Be Prepared For A Heat Emergency

Contingency Plan Needed As Fires, Explosions And Outages Call Into Question Con Ed’s Preparedness To Handle Heat Wave With Untrained Workers

NEW YORK – Amid the record-setting heat wave and Con Edison’s lockout of 8,500 workers by management, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman called on the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) to ensure the utility giant has the proper contingency plans in place to protect the millions of customers and ratepayers during this severe weather situation. The PSC’s responsibilities include ensuring reliable access to electricity.

Since Con Edison’s lockout began on July 1, there have been several incidents that call into question the utility’s preparedness for handling a heat emergency without properly trained workers, including several fires that burned two replacement workers, a series of explosions, and outages. Con Edison provides electricity to over three million customers in New York City and Westchester County.

“The relative effectiveness of New York electric utilities during last summer’s storms was without doubt due to the availability of the full complement of their regular outside plant workers. These workers know the territory, the equipment, the work, and each other,” wrote Attorney General Schneiderman in a letter sent to the PSC on July 6. “The bottom line is that without its regular outside plant workers, Con Edison cannot be prepared for a storm or a heat failure. I urge the PSC to ensure that Con Ed has the proper contingency plans in place and that the lockout of its workers by management will not put in jeopardy the millions of customers and ratepayers during this severe heat wave.”

Since July 1, Con Edison’s workers have been locked out and in their place are crews of managers and other personnel who normally do other things. The Attorney General noted that even if all these replacements had previous experience in the field, they would not be as effective as the regular outside plant workers. If nothing else, replacements do not have experience with their crewmates and do not know local conditions as well as the people who usually work there.

News reports indicate that two Con Edison managers have been injured while attempting to work on the power system, one of whom received facial burns from an explosion inside a manhole in Manhattan, another was burned in a substation fire in Bensonhurst. Over the weekend, a Con Edison transformer exploded under a midtown Manhattan street because of the record heat, triggering four explosions, setting a minivan on fire and spreading flames to a 16-story building, according to reports.

In addition to the usual issues any job would pose for new or newly returned workers, Con Edison’s power distribution system presents unique difficulties because most of it is underground, the Attorney General noted. Even utility workers experienced with equipment above ground have to learn how to work with underground wiring, transformers and other equipment.

Below is the full text of Attorney General Schneiderman’s letter to the PSC:

 

State of New York
Office of the Attorney General


Eric T. Schneiderman

July 6, 2012

Honorable Garry A. Brown, Chairman
Honorable Patricia L. Acompora
Honorable Maureen F. Harris
Honorable James L. Larocca
Honorable Gregg C. Sayre
New York State Public Service Commission
3 Empire State Plaza, 20th floor
Albany, NY 12223

Dear Commissioners:

            Last weekend massive thunderstorms fed by a record-setting heat wave killed at least 22 of our fellow Americans, caused enormous property damage, and left millions from Illinois to Southern New Jersey without power.  Some may not get their power back for a week or more.

            So far this year nothing like the weekend storm has hit New York, but the summer is just beginning.  New York electric utilities have to be ready if a storm comes our way.  Adequate preparation requires the maximum number of qualified personnel in place before a storm.  The Commission needs to take steps to ensure that all New York electric utilities will be prepared.

            The Public Service Law requires electric utilities to prepare storm plans and submit these plans to the Commission for review and approval.  All New York electric utilities have had storm plans for years.  A fundamental feature of all such plans is the maximum mobilization of qualified personnel.

            Last week, the Commission issued two reports about utility response to the damage last summer’s Hurricane Irene and tropical storm Lee inflicted on New York.

Both of these storms were monitored well before they hit New York, and the Commission found that all New York electric utilities mobilized their personnel about as well as could be expected given the wide area each storm affected.  The Commission had numerous suggestions for improving utility storm response, but few suggestions for improving mobilization and positioning qualified personnel.

            The relative effectiveness of New York electric utilities during last summer’s storms was without doubt due to the availability of the full complement of their regular outside plant workers.  These workers know the territory, the equipment, the work, and each other.

            Unfortunately, today, Con Edison, New York’s largest electric utility, would face a storm without its regular outside plant workers.  Con Edison’s workers have been locked out and in their place are crews of managers and other personnel who normally do other things.  Even if all these replacements had previous experience in the field, they would not be as effective as the regular outside plant workers.  If nothing else, replacements do not have experience with their crewmates and do not know local conditions as well as the people who usually work there.

            In addition to the usual issues any job would pose for new or newly returned workers, Con Edison’s power distribution system presents unique difficulties because most of it is underground.  Even utility workers experienced with equipment above ground have to learn how to work with underground wiring, transformers and other equipment.  Already news reports indicate that two ConEd managers have been injured while attempting to work on the power system, one of whom received facial burns from an explosion inside a manhole.

            The fact that so much of Con Edison is underground also makes it vulnerable to heat alone.  In July 1999 the entire Washington Heights-Inwood neighborhood lost power for days when underground electric cables failed in a heat wave.  In July 2006 large parts of Astoria lost power in another heat wave.  Since 1999 Con Edison has spent billions on distribution improvements, but the June 20-21, 2012 brownout in several Brooklyn neighborhoods indicates that Con Ed has not eliminated all distribution vulnerabilities.  Over the last two weeks, ConEd has resorted to reducing voltage to customers in a number of Brooklyn neighborhoods in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the blackouts of previous years.

            The bottom line is that without its regular outside plant workers Con Edison cannot be prepared for a storm or a heat failure. I urge the PSC to ensure that Con Ed has the proper contingency plans in place and that the lockout of its workers by management will not put in jeopardy the millions of customers and ratepayers during this severe heat wave.

            Thank you for your continuing efforts to provide New Yorkers safe and reliable electric service and other utilities.  If there are questions, please contact me.

                                                                              Very truly yours,

                                                                        Eric T. Schneiderman

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