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At Towson hearing, residents say BGE's derecho response reveals chronic issues

Some say outages more frequent than elsewhere

By Jon Meoli, jmeoli@tribune.com

10:23 AM EDT, August 17, 2012

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Baltimore County residents on Thursday told members of Maryland's Public Service Commission that the June 29 derecho storms that left 748,000 utility customers without power was a bad situation.

But sadly, they said, it's not exactly a rarity.

"I'm here tonight because this is a long-standing problem in this area," said Nancy Slaterback, a Rodgers Forge resident who has lived in the neighborhood for 28 years. "And the problem's getting worse. It's not getting better."

"I was without electricity seven days with (Hurricane) Isabel, six days with (Hurricane) Irene, and I was out five days with the derecho," she said. "That doesn't cover the number of times when there have been smaller outages.

"It's really distressing when you're watching this (outage) map and you see everything all around your clearing up," Slaterback said, "but you still, consistently, are the last ones to be brought back on line."

Dozens of residents packed a meeting room in the Baltimore County Office Building in Towson for the hearing, which was one of eight such meetings statewide — four of which were directed solely at Baltimore Gas and Electric's handling of the sweeping power outages earlier this summer.

Across Baltimore County, some 110,000 residents were without power after the storm, with some in the dark for as long as a week as crews worked to restore power.

Though some speakers were supportive of BGE and its efforts, many sought answers ... and accountability.

"We can purchase power from wherever we want, but we're dependent on BGE for that distribution system," Dale Doeller of Stoneleigh said.

Many of the speakers came from the Towson, Pikesville and Parkville areas.

Georgia Vogelsang, of Timonium, said her neighborhood was without power for several days after the storm, and has been twice since then. Some of her neighbors had "true catastrophes" after the derecho, she said. One elderly man was homebound after his electric wheelchair stopped working, while another neighbor had to replace their hardwood floor after ice melted and seeped out of their freezer.

Vogelsang said she, herself, has health issues, and needs a full-house generator to ensure her own well being.

"It's beyond belief that in a major metropolitan area, the power supply is so erratic that I cannot work or literally live without a backup generator," Vogelsang said.

The first speaker of the evening, Sandra Frier of Pikesville, began the session with a refrain that was often repeated throughout the night.

"I am here to make a case for putting the lines underground," she said. "BGE has told us that it will cost a million dollars a mile. I've been living in the Pikeville area for 26 years. During that time, they could have started putting lines underground."

Del. Steve Lafferty, who represents District 42, which includes Towson, said burying the lines would not be a panacea, but the possibility needs to be studied and customers need to be consulted to determine if they're willing to share that cost.

He also urged improvements in tree trimming, system upgrades and communications during outages.

Some residents were at least sympathetic to the task facing BGE crews.

Shanti DiMucci, of Towson, had to move her 6-month-old twins, two dogs and a refrigerator full of food to a friend's house during her five-day outage, but said it's important to try to be understanding of the utility's problems.

"I don't see BGE as the bad guys," she said. "As I was walking around, I saw lots of people with BGE working to solve the problems that had happened."

Members of the PSC have said they'll use the input from customers at all eight meetings in reviewing the utilities' response. Those who could not attend one of the four BGE sessions may submit comments through Sept. 10 to David Collins, executive secretary, Public Service Commission of Maryland, 6St. Paul St., 16th Floor, Baltimore, MD 21202.

NOTE: An error was initially made in the date of the June 29 storm. It has been corrected here.