Montgomery Council lashes out at Pepco during hearing

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Members of the Montgomery County Council on Thursday unleashed their frustration with Pepco, publicly scolding the beleaguered utility company for what they deemed an “antiquated system” that “let [its] infrastructure go to hell.”

Joined by a full house of bitter residents holding handmade signs chastising the company, county leaders listened to testimony and questioned Pepco leaders and Maryland Public Service Commission Chairman Doug Nazarian, whose agency will decide Friday whether to approve a 4 percent rate increase for the electric company.

“The problem itself is Pepco, the values of the company and the management of the company,” council member Hans Riemer said. “There are trees in many jurisdictions, bad weather in many jurisdictions, but people there have power so they can keep themselves clean, cool and comfortable.”

Gesturing to a thick white binder filled with emails and letters from residents, council President Roger Berliner suggested the Pepco team read through the pieces of correspondence, which “are fairly explicit to your failings.”

“We don’t have reliable power. We don’t have energy efficient power. We have clean power to the extent the government has said you must have clean power. We need to make this work. It’s not OK that you’ve crowded traffic out as the number-one issue in Montgomery County!”

The visit to Montgomery County was not the first stop Pepco executives have made in the weeks since the June 29 derecho storm, nor the first collection of verbal diatribes company executives have attempted to answer with promises that “work continues.”

The storm, which brought with it 60 mph winds and heavy rain, knocked out power to more than 1 million people. Nearly half of those outages were Pepco customers in the District and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

The utility’s regional president, Thomas H. Graham, appeared before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Public Service and Consumer Affairs last week. He told city leaders the company was willing to seriously discuss the possibility of burying power lines to avoid problems like those encountered by the storm.

He made a similar offer to the Montgomery County Council to discuss the option at a later time.

“We expect individuals to be upset because service has been out for a week,” Mr. Graham said as residents in the audience murmured agreement and criticism. “Is it possible to restore 483,000 customers in under a week? No utility I’m aware of can recover that quickly from a catastrophic event of that magnitude.”

The service commission chairman did not escape critique either, accepting the harsh words and questions from the council members about failed due diligence in monitoring the company.

“Are you in a position to tell Pepco what to do?” council member Nancy Floreen asked Mr. Nazarian. “Do you have the staff to put into place the right expectations for utilities? Does the Public Services Commission really and truly have all the resources it needs to ask the right questions and impose the right standards?”

In 2010, the commission fined Pepco $1 million for failing to maintain a sufficient distribution system, which led to severe and expansive outages after late winter snowstorms.

State Sen. Brian Frosh, Montgomery County Democrat, told Mr. Nazarian that the $1 million fine was “pocket change”for the utility and asked him to deny the company its rate increase. He was answered by strong applause from the audience.

Mr. Frosh and Prince George’s Democrat Sen. Jim Rosapepe started a petition last week to get the commission to fine Pepco $100 million, which would help fund an emergency utility personnel reserve.

Despite questions from council members and reporters, Mr. Nazarian remained mum on how the commission would decide on the rate increase. He also stayed neutral when discussing the process of reviewing Pepco’s performance during the derecho.

“What happens next depends on what we find,” Mr. Nazarian said. “I don’t know if there are violations of our law or regulations. What I don’t know is what the next steps and endgame are.”

Among the many residents on hand to watch the proceedings were Della Stolsworth, president of the Luxmanor Citizens Association, and Marilyn Hammerman, a resident of Luxmanor.

The women said their power went off on Friday in their neighborhood and wasn’t fully restored for five days.

“We just sweated,” Ms. Stolsworth said. “We’d go to the mall or do something during the day.”

Ms. Hammerman said her extended family, including grandchildren, headed for Rehoboth Beach, Del., after power had been out for 48 hours.

“There were 15 people in one house,” Ms. Hammerman said. “It was hell.”

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