State lawmakers call for deeper look into BGE's storm response

Operator Tony Lee of Pike Electric holds a downed wire as repairmen restore electricity on Vista Moble Drive that remained out Saturday, a week after Hurricane Irene struck.
Operator Tony Lee of Pike Electric holds a downed wire as repairmen restore electricity on Vista Moble Drive that remained out Saturday, a week after Hurricane Irene struck. (Karl Merton Ferron / The Baltimore Sun)

State lawmakers are calling for a deeper look into Baltimore Gas & Electric's response to Hurricane Irene, which left hundreds of thousands of customers without electricity — and ratepayers and public officials fuming about the utility's restoration efforts.

Democratic Sen. James Brochin called this week on theBaltimore County delegation to hold a hearing during the General Assembly's special legislative session in October.

Meanwhile, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. Middleton said Wednesday that he planned to hold a briefing with the state's utilities on their response to recent storms, including Irene and this week's heavy rains from the remains of Tropical Storm Lee.

BGE officials said they welcomed a discussion about the utility's performance. "This will certainly provide an opportunity for us to hear firsthand concerns from key stakeholders," spokesman Rob Gould said Wednesday.

"As important, it will allow us an opportunity to share with them the very real challenges associated with restoring power in the aftermath of a storm of this magnitude, one of the most devastating storms in BGE's nearly 200-year history," he added.

The hurricane left 750,000 BGE customers without lights. While most of the power was restored by Friday evening, some customers did not get electricity back until Sunday evening — a week after the storm passed through Maryland.

Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, who chairs theBaltimore County Senate delegation, said many questions remained about BGE's response time. "I think we do need some answers and see how we could make it better if this happens again," she said in an interview Wednesday.

Klausmeier and the House delegation chairman, Del. John A. Olszewski Jr., said they planned to work together to schedule a hearing, though it was not clear whether there would be time to hold one during the short special session, Klausmeier said.

Not all lawmakers agreed on the timing of a hearing. House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck Davis of Prince George's County said lawmakers should postpone taking action until the state's Public Service Commission has had a chance to conduct its own inquiry.

The PSC has ordered the state's utilities to submit reports on their Irene performance by Sept. 21. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 3.

Brochin said BGE should be held accountable for its performance, particularly when its parent company, Constellation Energy Group, is trying to win state regulatory approval to sell itself to Chicago-based Exelon Corp.

"With record profits, bonus payments and a pending merger that will net top executives millions of dollars, it is beyond my comprehension why communities have to sacrifice when BGE seems to be doing well," Brochin said in a Tuesday letter to Klausmeier requesting the hearing.

Brochin saidBaltimore County bore the brunt of the outages, with some communities left without power for eight days.

Brochin said he wanted to know how many linemen and other crew members were on hand to make repairs and whether BGE had hired enough out-of-state workers to respond to the hurricane.

In addition, he said he wanted BGE to explain how it prioritized restoration jobs. He also said he wanted schools added to the top of the utility's list in the future.

In making repairs, BGE's Gould said, the utility gives priority to hospitals and emergency dispatch centers. BGE also considers the number of customers affected by a repair. The utility said it had more than 6,000 workers, including 2,000 out-of-state linemen, helping to restore power in the Baltimore metropolitan region.

"We should always look at how we respond, how we did, and we should be concerned with lessons learned and opportunities to improve," he said.

However, he said, "what is getting lost is this was a hurricane."

BGE is not the only utility in the state to come under fire over its storm response in recent years. Pepco was criticized for its slow reaction in the aftermath of 2010's twin snowstorms.

The frustration over Pepco's performance, in particular, prompted state lawmakers to enact a law this year to hold utilities accountable for their performance.

The PSC is working to create reliability standards. The rules, due by next summer, would allow the state regulator to impose fines on utilities that fail to meet performance measures.

Middleton, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, said he planned to talk with his staff in coming days to schedule a briefing with the state's utilities.

"A lot of people in the Baltimore region are very upset with BGE's response to the storm and the length of time without power," he said. "I want to touch base with all the utilities instead of targeting one."