- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2003

NEW YORK — Warnings of trouble in the sprawling electric power grid before the nation’s worst blackout came too late, or not at all, over a telephone hot line created to prevent widespread breakdowns, power officials and politicians said yesterday.

Investigators were probing the role of the low-tech system of phones put in place to disseminate information between regional power groups to avert just such a crisis.

Failures in Ohio transmission lines prompted at least three conversations on Thursday between FirstEnergy Corp., the utility that owns them, and the industry group that manages transmission across much of the Midwest, said Mary Lynn Webster, a spokeswoman for the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator.

The conversations were initiated by officials with the Midwest system, said one person familiar with the probe, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Those transmission-line failures, which began at 3:06 p.m. EDT, are a focus of the investigation and suspected in the blackout’s possible starting point.

The failures were snowballing into systemwide disturbances by the time the Midwest group spoke with its counterpart in Pennsylvania, said Bob Hinkel, general manager of PJM Interconnection, which manages power across much of seven states, including Maryland and Virginia, plus the District of Columbia.

“We know that as the specific events began to unfold we had some conversation with them about what we were observing in our system,” Mr. Hinkel said. “The immediate response is you call the other operator.”

FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider said he could not provide any information about the conversations.

Premier Ernie Eves of Ontario complained that U.S. power managers did not notify their Canadian counterparts about the problems, either, as required under protocols developed after a 1965 blackout across much of the same region.

And many individual utilities said they had little or no indication of problems in the system before their own facilities shut down.

“The first indication that we had was when we started to see our transmission lines trip out,” said Ralph LaRossa, vice president of electric delivery for New Jersey’s PSE&G.; “There was not a heads-up prior to the event.”

A timeline of power problems compiled by the North American Electric Reliability Council, an industry group investigating the outage, showed power swings in the eastern United States and Canada by 4:08 p.m. EDT and a series of line failures in Michigan starting about nine minutes later.

In Lansing, Mich., employees of the Board of Water and Light noticed irregularities on the grid, but nothing that seemed unusual. Spokesman John Strickler said any information about problems elsewhere would have helped the utility cope with the blackout, which reached its peak regionwide at 4:11 p.m.

“It looks like stuff started about an hour before this hit us. It would be nice if when the first system went down that there was an alert,” he said. “We had no idea this was coming.”

Al Qaeda tried taking responsibility for the blackout, but government officials said yesterday that the claim should be taken with “a giant grain of salt,” Fox News reported.

Independent system operators across the country are tied together by a system of hot lines.

The system was put in place after the 1965 blackout to provide operators with vital information about events occurring outside their jurisdictions.

Each system is so complex that operators are dependent on their counterparts to share information.

“It’s certainly crucial that those two parties are talking to each other,” Mr. Hinkel said of ties between his group and the Midwest.

“If you see changes but you don’t know what’s going on, the immediate response is you call the other operator.”

Many phone-line conversations are recorded. Those recordings, and logs of calls in and out of affected control rooms, will become key to the simultaneous investigations conducted by industry groups, Congress and federal and state task forces.

“That’s an integral part of this,” said Stephen Allen, spokesman for the Northeast Power Coordinating Council, which is examining the failure in New York and parts of New England and Canada. “We will be looking at hardware, software and people.”

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