BGE bucket operator Julio Portillo trims silver maple and Eastern white pine trees along a private driveway off Stevenson Road, in an area of Pikesville that had a prolonged power outages during this summer's derecho storm.
BGE bucket operator Julio Portillo trims silver maple and Eastern white pine trees along a private driveway off Stevenson Road, in an area of Pikesville that had a prolonged power outages during this summer's derecho storm. (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis)

About a dozen Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers, consumer advocates and a City Councilwoman faulted the utility Tuesday for lack of preparation before and poor communication after a derecho storm struck the region in June.

At a Baltimore public hearing on the utility's storm response, a crowd repeated concerns that BGE officials didn't provide them with an estimated time their power would be restored. Others questioned why the utility hadn't cut back mature trees to prevent branches from knocking out power lines — to which BGE officials responded by pointing to recent efforts at more aggressive trimming.

Public Service Commission chairman Doug Nazarian noted that Tuesday's crowd was small.

It was the second of four opportunities the commission is giving BGE customers to air grievances about outages that followed the June 29 storm. More than 762,000 BGE customers lost power at some point in the nine days after the storm.

For some, the lack of details about outage repair work was equally or more frustrating than the lack of electricity.

"All you want is some information so you can make plans," said Armand Girard, a 74-year-old city resident who left for the beach after three days without power. "You have to put pressure on them so they have to say, 'Mr. Girard, it will be done in three days or four days.'"

In a letter to the commission released Tuesday, City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke echoed those concerns. Clarke represents areas of North Baltimore hit particularly hard with power outages in the derecho.

"Time and time again, constituents reported that crews had trouble finding their outage locations — and then often lacked the equipment required to address specific outages," Clarke wrote. "Crews were frustrated at their inability to fix the problem, and neighbors faced further delays until properly equipped crews could be dispatched."

Other speakers at the hearing acknowledged the challenge of making necessary power line repairs but encouraged the utility to do more to prevent damage in the future.

"I understand it was a terrible storm and this was a horrible situation, but this was not the only time this happens to us," said Susann Schemm, a resident of the Ednor Gardens-Lakeside neighborhood who was without power for eight days after the storm. "Why can't they come and cut the trees? This is what happens."

BGE spokesman Rob Gould said he was encouraged to find that customers' concerns align with the utility's, after many who spoke at the hearing said they wondered why more trees weren't trimmed or cut down in their neighborhoods.

"Our goal is to continue to enhance service, and we will do that," Gould said. "This process helps."

BGE officials are launching more aggressive tree-trimming practices to prevent future long-term outages. Reporters toured some of the efforts in Cockeysville and Pikesville on Tuesday morning.

New policies require all trees to be cleared from above overhead power lines closest to substations, which, if knocked down, could potentially affect hundreds of customers. Previous regulations allowed branches 15 feet or higher above those lines, but the PSC adopted new standards in May. In other areas further from substations, the 15-foot rule still applies, but BGE crews are going further in trimming in some areas where reliability has been poor.

All branches will need to be cleared around about 8,300 miles of BGE's 10,500 miles of overhead lines, BGE spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said. Many of those lines may already be clear, she said, and the policy doesn't apply to all overhead lines, just BGE's, which are the highest atop telephone poles.

The problem in many cases is that homeowners have planted trees along their property lines, the same place suburban planners chose for power lines some 60 years ago, said Roger Cordell, a BGE forester. Many of them are fast-growing varieties like silver maples, white pines and some types of elm trees, offering ample shade within a few years but also creating power reliability hazards because the quick growth means weak branches, Cordell said.

At least one BGE customer at Tuesday's hearing had only sympathy for the utility.

"No one was expecting this storm," Melanie Ranson told the utility commission. "When my power got turned back on, I was thankful."

Two more hearings are scheduled, in Ellicott City on Wednesday and Towson on Thursday. About 50 people attended a hearing Monday in Annapolis.