Council, utilities discuss slow response to outages during Jan. ice storm; PEPCO blames trees, lack of forecast at meeting in Montgomery County


ROCKVILLE -- All that's left of the Washington region's crippling January ice storm is a towering stack of wood chips and mound of bad feelings.

The Montgomery County Council met with representatives of three power companies yesterday to find out why it took up to five days to restore electricity to more than 190,000 county homes and businesses.

The council also heard about a continuing cleanup that is expected to generate enough wood chips from fallen branches and trees to cover a football field to a depth of 80 feet.

The Jan. 14 storm took the region by surprise, crippling the power grid, filling hospital emergency rooms with hundreds of people who had slipped on the ice and forcing families to stay at hotels and county shelters.

Council members who took heat from constituents during the blackout criticized Potomac Electric Power Co., the area's primary power source, for slow response and poor communication with customers.

Robert Grantley, a PEPCO vice president, said the storm was the worst in the utility's 102-year history and had not been forecast.

When company executives realized the magnitude of the problem, they called in all repair crews and crews from as far as North Carolina, Grantley said.

Council President Isiah Leggett said he had received complaints about crews going to houses with power and customers "talking to machines talking to more machines."

He also criticized PEPCO for "not sending out what I consider the A team," specifically Chief Executive Officer John Derrick Jr., to answer the council's questions.

Grantley explained that PEPCO's response was hampered by continued bad weather and a substation fire that required cutting electricity to 70,000 customers whose power had been restored.

PEPCO not understaffed

He insisted that despite a reduction in lines crews over the past five years, PEPCO was not understaffed.

His contention was supported by a letter from Glenn Ivey, chairman of the state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.

Grantley also noted that ice storms in Virginia and Maine caused blackouts that lasted longer than Montgomery County's.

Council members were briefed by representatives from two other electric companies -- Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Allegheny Power -- that serve smaller segments of the county.

'Solicitous of their trees'

Grantley continued to blame "99 percent" of the outages on fallen trees.

Although the utility spends about $6 million each year to trim trees along its 2,500 miles of power lines, it is restricted by how much it can prune, he said.

State regulations prohibit the removal of more than two years' growth from trees near power lines, which is not enough, Grantley said.

"People are very solicitous of their trees," he said. "I can tell when crews are working by the number of complaints being phoned in."

Grantley dismissed suggestions that the utility bury its lines, saying it could cost $13 billion for the system.

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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