WASHINGTON — — A Maryland congressman called on regulators to amp up pressure on the state's electric utilities Thursday after last month's derecho left some customers without power for more than a week.
In a scathing analysis of the utilities' response, Rep. Chris Van Hollen added his voice to a chorus of local elected leaders who have called on Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Pepco, which serves the Washington region, to bury at least some power lines. The Montgomery County Democrat also said the state should consider a proposal circulating in Annapolis to impose heavy fines on the companies.
The comments are among the first made by a member of the state's congressional delegation about the outages, which left hundreds of thousands of Marylanders waiting for days for air conditioning amid a severe summer heat wave.
In an interview, Van Hollen said the state's Public Service Commission was partly to blame for not keeping tighter reins on the electric companies.
"This has happened in the past," said Van Hollen, who did not lose power at his own home in the June 29 storm but said his office was flooded with calls from constituents who did. "This time, I made a commitment during the storm to take a look at it."
Van Hollen released a report that found Pepco's recovery took longer than neighboring Dominion, which serves Virginia. By July 1, the report found, Dominion had restored electricity to almost 60 percent of those who had lost power, compared with only 20 percent for Pepco.
A Pepco spokesman would not address questions about Van Hollen's analysis on the record, but released a statement from the company. "Pepco is in the process of conducting its major storm review and report, which it will file with the Public Service Commission at the end of the month," the statement said. "We appreciate the congressman's views, and will address them in the report when our review is complete."
The PSC fined Pepco $1 million last year for failing to maintain its grid following criticism from customers and lawmakers after twin snowstorms hit Maryland in February 2010.
Van Hollen's comments follow a call by two state lawmakers for massive fines to be levied against both BGE and Pepco. State lawmakers who represent Montgomery County in the General Assembly have also stated their opposition to the proposed rate increase.
Sen.Brian E. Frosh, a Democrat from Montgomery County, and Sen.James C. Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, urged the PSC to use its authority to impose fines of more than $100 million against each of the utilities for what they called a failure by the companies to meet their responsibilities to more than a million customers.
While much of the legislative ire over the power outages and delays in the restoration of service has been directed at Pepco, Rosapepe said the feedback he has received from his Anne Arundel constituents who are BGE customers suggests the company's performance wasn't significantly better.
"It was a pretty similar experience," he said. He said that in Anne Arundel, some communities lost power for more than 30 hours even though their utility lines are underground.
The lawmakers have urged the commission to fine the two utilities $250 for every customer who remained without power three days after the storm, which they said would yield a penalty of $144 million for BGE and $106 million for Pepco. They said fines of that magnitude would reflect the amount of economic damage caused by the power interruptions and would be sufficient to force top utility executives to make service restoration a priority.
"If all the PSC does is give a slap on the wrists, there will be no incentive for the utilities to clean up their act and get the power on," Rosapepe said in an interview. He said such fines would represent only 1 percent of the PSC's authority to impose fines of $25,000 for each customer without power.
The senators suggested part of the money collected in fines could be directed toward a ramped-up program of putting utility lines underground at strategic points in the network. They also urged the PSC to consider using some of the money to develop what they called a "surge reserve" of local residents who could be trained to supplement the utilities' local work force during emergencies.
Rob Gould, a BGE spokesman, said the call for sanctions is premature and defended the company's response to the storm.
"No weather service predicted this storm, which is why no utility east of the Mississippi was in a position to be mobilized in this extremely unusual event," he said.
Gould said any assessment of the utilities' performance should come after the PSC has had the opportunity to complete a post-storm review that is now under way.
"It's important that there be a fact-based review where the performance can be evaluated," he said. "If there are opportunities for improvement, that will come through the process."
Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gov.Martin O'Malley, said her boss has heard about the proposal and finds it "intriguing" but is withholding judgment until the PSC finishes its review. A spokesman for the commission did not respond to a request for comment.
Frustration with the utilities and state regulations has been bipartisan. Earlier this month, Republican Rep.Roscoe G. Bartlettcriticized O'Malley and state regulators for a state policy that allows utilities to levy a small fee on customers even while they lacked electricity.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he was also frustrated by long outages, but he did not go as far as Van Hollen. The former Baltimore County executive said government needs to study why some communities seem to have more reliable electricity.
"It's a bigger issue than just burying power lines," said Ruppersberger, who said he lost power for two to three days this month. "We have to, from a national and a state and local point of view, come up with a plan so that every time there's a storm we don't lose power."