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Fallout From Sandy May Bring Big Fines for Utilties

11-13-12

With severe power outages continuing for days and weeks after Hurricane Sandy, power companies find themselves in the eye of a political storm with big new fines being proposed. Sen. Shirley Turner (D-15), who is leading that effort, spoke to NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider about what could be done to hold utilities accountable for poor performances.

Turner says that lawmakers need to insist that power companies each submit an emergency response plan for the Board of Public Utilities to review and approve.

“If they are accepted, they would be required to perform … their action plan in the case of a power outage,” said Turner.

And if they don’t, utilities would get hit where it really hurts — in the pocketbook.

“They would have to pay $10,000 per day, per violation, up to a million dollars. And if they do not submit an emergency response plan, then, they would be fined a thousand dollars a day until such a plan is submitted and approved by the BPU.”

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According to Turner, the current fines just aren’t enough to prompt the utilities to improve their response time when a natural disaster strikes.

“Right now, they would only have to pay $100 per day so that is more or less the cost of doing business.”

It’s time to put some real teeth to the BPU’s power to hit the utilities for less-than satisfactory performance, said Turner.

“And if they can’t do the job, then they should leave the state and we can get someone in here who can.”

Turner says the proposal, inspired by last year’s Tropical Storm Irene, was introduced back in January.

“I believe we should have put these plans in place before we had another storm because we know that this is not an exception these days. It’s the norm. We continue having these storms and we’re caught flat-footed, unprepared.”

While she didn’t let any of the utilities off the hook from this latest disaster, there was one company she identified as the most egregious, if the number of complaints in her district is any indication.

“In my district, it’s Jersey Central Power & Light that I get the most complaints from,” Turner said. “That was true with Irene and it was true with Hurricane Sandy. I had so many of my constituents complain with Irene that they were out for 5 or 6 days or more. And now with Sandy, they were out for more than two weeks and it was all customers of Jersey Central Power & Light.”

She says it’s time to hold JCP&L’s feet to the fire and if they can’t do the job, well, they need to make room for someone else.

“If they do not want our business in New Jersey, then they should go elsewhere. And we should bring in a company that is going to be reliable and dependable when we need them cause my constituents have been left literally in the dark for more than two weeks in this case. So if there’s another hurricane coming and we can believe, more or less, that they will be coming, we’ve got to get these utility companies to prepare themselves and have an action plan in place.”


  • Mike Harrison

    Sandy was much more than anyone – residents or business owners – could ever have imagined or protected themselves completely from. It just was. And, as distraught and angry as many people are, the fact is that the power companies can be prepared for only so much and they have only so many people and resources at their disposal.

    Even with the help of the wonderful workers from power companies around the country; the men (and perhaps women) who left their families and drove hundreds of miles to get here and give of their knowledge, skills and strength, many of us still are without power. It was and is a horrible situation.

    But how many spare transformers, utility poles, miles of cabling, trucks, and other facilities are the power companies supposed to keep around? And, even if they had every last thing they needed stacked up in a depot somewhere, they simply cannot simultaneously be everywhere with every possible necessary resource with them.

    Simultaneously is the key word. Because this storm caused extensive damage simultaneously over the entire NJ coast (plus Staten Island, lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and all along Long Island). Thousands of homes and businesses were instantly destroyed, thousands of people were instantly without homes. And, at the same time, electric utility facilities were also destroyed. Absolutely awful.

    And unthinkable. No one could possibly have thought this much damage and hurt could happen so quickly, at the same time, and over such a large area. But it happened. However, the power companies were only as prepared for damage to their facilities and service areas as we were prepared at our homes and businesses.

    It’s not that they’re not trying.

    I don’t think they should be fined, nor are they solely responsible for picking up the tab for all of this. They certainly could not have prevented anything. We all live here, and no one is to blame for anything.

  • Mike Harrison

    Addendum: When I said “NJ coast,” I was thinking of the power of the storm surge. I am well aware of and did not mean to exclude the inland areas that suffered damage just as extensive. I should have worded that better. My apologies.