People's Counsel seeks more time to examine utilities' performance; Governor gave agency until Dec. 1 to report


The investigation into the emergency preparedness of the state's public utilities may be too hurried to yield many answers, the Maryland Office of People's Counsel said yesterday.

In its response to the utilities' self-assessments, which were filed with the Maryland Public Service Commission last week, the OPC requested more time for data requests and evidentiary hearings.

Public comment hearings are planned for Nov. 4 and Nov. 5 at the PSC offices in Baltimore.

"The time constraints of this investigation make a thorough inquiry into the public utilities' emergency plans for restoring power to consumers impossible," the OPC filing said.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening called for the investigation after hearing of mass consumer complaints about the utilities' performance during Hurricane Floyd last month.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. bore the brunt of the criticism, much of which centered on it taking too long to restore power.

At its peak, Floyd cut power to 363,000 residences and businesses in the Baltimore area. Some customers were without power for eight days. BGE has 1.1 million electricity customers in the region.

BGE called those numbers "unprecedented" in its report. According to preliminary figures, the hurricane cost BGE an estimated $17.9 million, the utility said.

In its self-assessment, BGE said it will change some of its procedures, and will look into ways to manage high call volumes, provide customers with restoration times specific to their neighborhoods, and reduce service interruptions caused by storms.

The investigation will also look at the actions of all eight utilities that serve the state during the January ice storm and the July heat waves.

Glendening ordered the PSC to complete its investigation and report its findings by Dec. 1.

"We didn't have much time to do a lot of analysis," said Gregory Carmean, the commission's executive director, adding that the commission's staff had four days to review and respond to the utilities' reports.

In its filing with the commission, the PSC staff recommended the commission meet the governor's deadline, but revisit the utilities' distribution and transmission maintenance practices next summer.

Michael J. Travieso, head of the Office of the People's Counsel, was unavailable for comment yesterday.

BGE disagrees with the need for further investigation.

"The procedure that the commission adopted allows for a thorough investigation within the time line the governor allotted," said Darcel Guy Kimble, a BGE spokeswoman.

Earlier this week, Glendening set up a 17-member task force to recommend long-term steps the state can take to reduce power outages and other damage after natural disasters.

The governor charged the Task Force to Ensure Utility Services with studying potential changes to laws, rules, practices and incentives.

The task force includes local and state officials, representatives from the utilities and the PSC, and members of environmental, consumer and business groups. Gene Lynch, the governor's deputy chief, will be chairman of the task force. Its report is due to the governor Dec. 31.

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