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City councilwoman presses BGE for 'preventive medicine' before storm emergencies

A city councilwoman is calling on Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. to appear before the council to explain its slow response to June's derecho storm and to address underlying grid and tree canopy problems that contributed to widespread power outages.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she is planning to introduce a resolution on Aug. 13 asking BGE to come to an as yet unscheduled council hearing, and to speak to neighborhood groups..

The Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates BGE, has already scheduled public hearings of its own, starting in Annapolis on Aug. 13, 7 p.m., in the Legislative Services Building at 90 State Circle.

The PSC will also hold hearings Aug. 14 at 7 p.m., in Baltimore's War Memorial Building, 101 N. Gay St.; Aug. 15 in Ellicott City and Aug. 16 in Towson.

But Clarke said she wants representatives of BGE to come before the City Council as well "to talk about specific issues my constituents had" as the storm left about 750,000 residents without electricity for up to a week afterward.

North Baltimore was hit especially hard, with dozens of residences in Hampden and Roland Park being left without power long after the storm, Clarke said.

The violent storm June 29 is a catalyst for increasing concern about the reliability of Roland Park's power grid, because of frequent, unexplained outages three months before the storm.

That has prompted the Roland Park Civic League to discuss the neighborhood's infrastructure and its tree canopy, which is contributing to downed power lines, league officials say.

The league is trying to arrange a meeting with BGE officials in October to discuss the area's electrical, sewer and broadband infrastructure, according to the latest issue of the online Roland Park Civic League newsletter.

Clarke said it is those kinds of issues she wants BGE to discuss at a City Council hearing. She said she doesn't blame BGE for its delayed response, because the storm was so unexpected and severe.

But she said wants the utility to provide "some preventive medicine" to make sure Roland Park doesn't have the kinds of problems it has had.

Clarke also questioned the breadth of power outages in Hampden after the storm. She said Genny Dill, of the Hampden Community Council, gave her a list of affected households that was three pages long.

Dill said she had to charge her cellphone in her car and at a hotel she stayed in for a night, in order to be able to send Clarke the information.

"It was as if Hampden turned off. I think we need to find out why," Clarke said.

She also cited problems in Guilford related to an "old" transformer that was struck by lightning in the storm.

"I would like (BGE) to discuss with us where their weaknesses are, with an eye toward improving their system," Clarke said.

In addition, she said, she wants BGE officials to go to neighborhoods and show residents where power lines and other equipment are, so that the public has a better idea of how the system works. She also said trees have been a problem in causing downed lines and a plan is needed for pruning the area's tree canopy.

Clarke is drafting her resolution at a time when BGE is seeking a 6.6 percent increase in electricity rates.

"Their timing is awful," Clarke said, adding, "I'm not sure they need an increase."

Even without a rate increase, "We certainly pay high enough rates to make the kind of improvements we have every right to have," she said.

Roland Park Civic League president Phil Spevak said he welcomes the PSC hearings, and thinks a member of the civic league will attend the Aug. 14 hearing in the city.

Spevak said he would also welcome a City Council hearing and is eager for BGE to come to a meeting of the league, too.

"All of these efforts are addressing a problem that is important to look at," Spevak said. "I think we're all interested in the same thing."

Spevak said he wants to know not just why BGE was slow to respond to the storm, but "what the condition of the system was before the storm. What's been the preventive maintenance to protect the hardware? We would like to know about the overall reliability of the system and the grid."

But Dill has her doubts about how effective a hearing before the City Council would be.

"I think a lot of people feel BGE is going to say the same crap and raise rates, and the next time power goes out, it's going to be the same," Dill said. "It has turned into this vicious cycle. If (the City Council) is calling these companies in to say we want an explanation and we want action, then something might come out of it. Unless that happens, this will be a waste."

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