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Watson wants PSC to investigate chronic power outages

County Council member Courtney Watson Thursday prefiled legislation that would ask the Maryland Public Service Commission to investigate chronic power outages in certain areas of Howard County.

The legislation identifies more than a dozen neighborhoods throughout the county, all in addition to several Ellicott City and Columbia neighborhoods already being investigated by the PSC, the state agency responsible for regulating public utilities.

The current investigation started after Reliability4HOCO, a group of residents frustrated with the multiple power outages they have experienced in recent years, filed a complaint with the PSC in February. Dunloggin resident Cathy Eshmont, the group's founder, collected more than 300 signatures for the petition.

The PSC, in response to the complaint, held a public hearing on the outage problems in July and is expected to release a report in December.

The neighborhoods PSC already is investigating are Bethgate, Dunloggin, Dunmoor Woods, Font Hill, Forest Hill Drive, Green Henge, Normandy Heights, The Oaks, Turf Valley Road, Valley Mede and Worthington, all in Ellicott City; Beaverbrook, Dalton, Gwynn Acres and Sebring, all in Columbia; and Clarksville Ridge.

Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said the outage problems in neighborhoods mentioned in the resolution, cosponsored by Columbia Democrats Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa, came to light after Reliability4HOCO filed its petition. She said she has been working with the group on the legislation.

"I agreed to do it so they would not have to go through the whole petition process again," Watson said.

The additional neighborhoods Watson wants the PSC to investigate are Burleigh Manor, Historic Ellicott City, Hollifield, Turf Valley Legends and Turf Valley Vistas, all in Ellicott City; Amherst Avenue, Braeburn, Carlinda Avenue, Columbia Hills, Dartmouth Road and Green Moon Path, all Columbia; Pleasant Chase and Ridgley's Run, both in Jessup; Hammond Village and Stansfield Road, both in North Laurel; and parts of Dunloggin, The Oaks and Worthington not included in the original petition.

Eshmont said she is "very happy" with the legislation and with the fact that she now has the attention of Howard County government, which had been dismissive of the idea that reliability was a problem beyond her Dunloggin neighborhood.

"It began a quest to prove there are a lot of other people," she said. "I am blown away by the scope of the problem in Howard County."

The resolution will officially be introduced at the council's legislative meeting Sept. 4. A public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 18. Both meetings will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

The PSC received a copy of the legislation Thursday when it was prefiled.

"The commission is still studying the legislation and has not formed an opinion at this time," spokeswoman Regina Davis said in an email response to questions.

Asked how often the PSC receives requests from legislative bodies, Davis said: "I understand that this is the first legislation that asks us to open a specific investigation."

Reliability 'very strong'

The request, Watson said, is not meant to be an attack on Baltimore Gas and Electric, the utility company that provides power to Howard County homes and business.

"We believe BGE and their personnel have been very cooperative; we have a good working relationship," she said. "We believe the reliability is very strong in 98 percent of Howard County homes, but we're trying to improve the ones that are not."

BGE spokesman Robert Gould said the request "is not something new" and that BGE has been working "very aggressively" to address reliability issues in certain parts of Howard County.

"We've made some significant progress," he said, noting performance has improved as a result of equipment additions and tree trimming in various neighborhoods.

Gould said BGE would look at the list of neighborhoods included in the legislation and enhance service where it's feasible.

Watson said she's hoping the public hearing process will encourage other residents who have experienced chronic outages and not reported them to step forward.

"Many times people who have suffered form utility reliability problems have suffered in silence," she said.

Eshmont added: "To this day, I don't believe we've found all the problems in Howard County."

In addition to investigating the chronic outages, the resolution asks that the PSC require BGE to provide the county with detailed outage information, including addresses of affected residences, for places where power has not been restored within 24 hours after an outage.

Watson said this provision is aimed at making sure county emergency operations teams can get resources to people who are without power for long periods of time.

"We were very afraid that we were going to have heat-related fatalities in the last storm because we weren't sure exactly where the outages were," she said.

Howard County Fire Chief Bill Goddard said he strongly supports the resolution.

"We've been very hampered by the inability to access information from the utility companies that would help us reach out those in our communities that may be in need of assistance," he said.

Goddard said Howard County is unique in that the fire department sends crews out when there are power outages to see if residents need resources and assistance, rather than just waiting for emergency calls. The department provides information on safe use of generators and delivers food and water to those in need.

"Any time power goes out we automatically shift into a gear of getting out of the fire houses and into the communities," Goddard said.

With only "general ideas" about where the outages are, Goddard said his staff just goes out and knocks on doors. They are aided by the Howard County Police, which uses its helicopter to go out at night and identify the dark areas.

"We spend a lot of time trying to find those without power," he said, noting that having addresses provided by BGE would allow the department's community engagement process to "be much more streamlined."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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