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Residents lash out at BGE during accountability hearing

Hurricanes and Tropical StormsHurricane Irene (2011)David H. Moore

A power struggle played out for nearly three hours this week between residents of several Howard County neighborhoods dealing with chronic electrical outages and the company that provides them that electricity.

About 250 people showed up Tuesday, July 24 for a public hearing before the Maryland Public Service Commission at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. The hearing came about after a complaint was filed earlier this year by Ellicott City resident Cathy Eshmont, who was frustrated by chronic power outages she believed was being ignored byBaltimore Gas and Electric Co.

"We have been under-served and disregarded by BGE for many years," Eshmont said. "BGE has repeatedly asked us to trust them to fix their own reliability problems, and they have not done so. We don't believe they will without being ordered to."

Eshmont is a resident of the Dunloggin neighborhood. She, along with several of her neighbors, reached the pique of their frustrations with BGE last fall after Hurricane Irene left many in her neighborhood without power for several days. She soon learned other Ellicott City neighborhoods — Font Hill, Turf Valley, Hollified Station and Burleigh Manor, among others — were experiencing chronic or prolonged power outages, even in good weather, and other issues like brown-outs and poor customer service.

"I'm struck by what seems to be a systematic problem that has seen little improvement in decades," said Maryann Maher, a Font Hill resident who was one of about 30 people who testified before PSC's public utility judge, David Moore. "There appears to be a lack of response and accountability. Many residents are well-informed, civically engaged, and are above average means, yet so many have not had their concerns answered."

David Rubin has been a Font Hill resident for 20 years, and said he has experienced at least 100 outages in that time, ranging from five seconds, to eight days following 2011's Hurricane Irene. For people like Rubin who suffer from sleep apnea or other conditions, prolonged outages can be dangerous, he said. The most recent outage for Rubin and several others was Tuesday morning, at about 6:15 a.m., that lasted a few minutes.

Some suggested burying power lines in heavily treed areas like Font Hill, but others pointed out that even in neighborhoods with underground lines, outages were still frequent because the feeder lines were still above-ground. When Roxie Thomas was without power after a storm, she said it took five days for a service crew to make it to her Hollifield Station neighborhood. It took a worker 15 minutes to fix the problem — not caused by downed lines, Thomas said, but by the failure of old equipment.

"We can't argue with trees coming down, but when it's a lack of maintenance, that's not acceptable to anyone in our community," she said.

Robert Ostergaard has been a resident of Howard County "on and off" since 1991. His work requires him to frequently move, so he has experience with power grids all around the world.

"I lived in Monterey, Calif., for one year, there were no power outages," said Ostergaard, currently a resident of Turf Valley. "I lived in Texas for two years, there were no power outages. I lived in Wyoming for a year, there were no outages. I lived in Oahu for five years, we had one outage. We spent a year in Taiwan. Despite having a typhoon, we didn't have any outages. We moved to rural north England ... in a 500-year-old house two miles from the nearest village, didn't have any power outages. We moved to the Outback — I'm not making this up — in Australia ... didn't have any outages in four years. ... In Ellicott City, we've had seven days of outages in 2012, to date, and 11 in 2011."

Ostergaard, like others, urged the PSC to make BGE take action before Howard County resembles a third-world country. The PSC's report will be released in mid-December.

After the hearing, Robert Gould, vice president of corporate communications for BGE, said that while the frustration was understandable, the reality was that the majority of those who spoke during the hearing had not experienced an outage this year "of duration," minus the derecho. Gould said no amount of tree-trimming would stop outages when it comes to things like derechos, because "you can't hurricane-proof the system." BGE has been working with the communities for more than a year on these issues, Gould said.

"We have invested a lot of time and energy in these communities, contrary to what may have been said today," he said. "We have had consistent engagement since the spring of 2011 with multiple communities. We've significantly enhanced reliability, and the reliability work will continue through the rest of this year. ... We've been making infrastructure enhancements in the area."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Hurricanes and Tropical StormsHurricane Irene (2011)David H. Moore
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