Bucks County Herald

Hunterdon officials, residents voice power failure frustrations

JOHN SIEVERS

Residents affected by wide-spread power outages criticized Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L) during a May 4 investigative hearing on utility company responses to early March storms that left hundreds of thousands without power.

“I know this region was hit particularly hard,” said Joseph L. Fiordaliso, president of the New Jersey State Board of Public Utilities (BPU), who presided over the hearing with three of the four other BPU commissioners. “The information you provide to us is an integral part of our investigation. We’re here to listen to you.”

The hearing at the Sergeantsville Firehouse in Delaware Township was conducted by BPU at New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s request.

Although representatives from Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G) were on hand, most of the focus was on JCP&L, a division of FirstEnergy Corp, which serves many of the affected areas in New Jersey, including all of Hunterdon County.

Local officials blasted JCP&L’s response, citing a lack of coordination at the corporate level, proper vegetation management and offering false hope to residents as to when power would come back on. Hunterdon County Director of Public Safety George Wagner said JCP&L’s automated phone system was “entirely inaccurate” and “not updated.”

Many residents were without power for days and were given inaccurate information as to when power would be restored, some even getting automated messages indicating their power had been restored when it had not.

Steven Leftly of Lebanon Township said he was without power for 10 days. He said he might have made plans to stay somewhere else if he had been warned but instead was getting messages that the outages would not last very long.

Delaware Township Mayor Samuel Thompson said he didn’t understand how people living in a country like the United States could be without power for multiple days.

Delaware Township Committeewoman Susan Lockwood said while the township was waiting for crews to arrive from Ohio, PECO already had restored power in Bucks County.

She added that when the crews did arrive, “They didn’t know where to go.”

Assemblyman Roy Freiman (R-16) said some repair crews were unable to begin their work simply because they lacked flaggers.

A number of local officials said linemen working to restore power found the infrastructure “antiquated” with parts that are difficult to fix or replace.

Thompson said large-scale tree cutting should not be considered as a solution because it would permanently destroy one of the area’s cherished characteristics. “If the lines are buried, we don’t have this problem,” he said.

FirstEnergy spokesman Scott Surgeoner said underground lines are seven to 10 times more expensive than above ground lines and are essentially no better. “In many cases it takes a lot longer” to restore power when the lines are underground, he added.

Last month, FirstEnergy Corp. reported first quarter 2018 GAAP earnings of $1.2 billion or $2.55 per basic share on revenues of $3 billion.

“I do really understand what our customers have gone through,” Jim Fakult, president of JCP&L said. “We’re committed to learning and getting better.”

He said he was “proud” of the company’s 1,500 employees who worked 24/7 on getting power restored.

The company’s linemen were specifically singled out for praise by nearly everyone who spoke.

However, Nancy Bond of Delaware Township said that when she returned from riding out the outages in a motel, she discovered bunches of wire, caution tape and other debris strewn up and down her long, winding driveway and as a visual aide pulled the yellow caution tape out of a white bucket and dropped it on the floor in front of her.

In a rare break in protocol, Fiordaliso directed Bond to a JCP&L representative. “I expect someone to go out and clean it up,” the BPU president said.

The debris was removed 24 hours later, according to Bond.

Bond also said at the hearing that a power company representative marked “X’s” on some of her trees a number of times in recent years with the expectation that they would be cut down, but that never happened. Some of those came down during the storms, she said.

Erik Peterson (R-23) said the region is unique in New Jersey in that “most of us have wells,” so when power is lost, the ability to use the septic and the ability to cook is also lost. Livestock is also threatened by extended outages. “Bottled water isn’t going to cut it if you have horses or cows.”

The BPU will be reviewing mutual aid assistance protocols to ensure state utilities make restoring power in New Jersey their first priority.

BPU will look at more than 100 utility storm protocols the agency implemented after Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene to assess whether they were followed during the March storms and where improvements should be made.

Fiordaliso expects to have his final report publicly available sometime this summer.

Residents can submit comments through mail or email by Thursday, May 31, to board.secretary@bpu.nj.gov or Aida Camacho-Welch, Secretary of the Board, Board of Public Utilities, 44 South Clinton Ave., 3rd Floor, Suite 314, PO Box 350, Trenton, NJ 08625-0350.

Reference March 2018 Winter Storm Events comments Docket Number EO18030255 in the subject field for emails and in the heading of written correspondence. Fiordaliso said equal weight will be given to written comments.

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