- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A U.S.-Canadian probe of last week’s blackout will be quick but thorough so investigators can determine how to prevent a recurrence, U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said yesterday.

Mr. Abraham, briefing Ohio officials before meeting for the first time with the task force in Detroit, said it was important to get the facts before pointing fingers.

“We believe the first course is to analyze the relevant information quickly to make sure we have a complete picture of what happened before we begin any public discussions or commentary,” he said. “It’s important, obviously, that we withhold judgment until all the facts are in.”

Later in Detroit, Mr. Abraham and Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, Herb Dhaliwal, started their first face-to-face meeting on the joint investigation into the biggest blackout in North American history. The two are co-chairing the task force.

“The reliability of the system is paramount. … We are committed to working to make sure we have some of those answers as quickly as possible,” Mr. Dhaliwal said.

Experts studying the outage have pointed to a series of small failures on the northeast Ohio power grid owned by FirstEnergy Corp. that may have combined to unleash a huge wave of destructive electricity.

FirstEnergy warned yesterday that rolling blackouts may be needed in the greater Cleveland area and called on its customers to take steps to reduce their power consumption.

FirstEnergy has been criticized for power outages in the past. Earlier this year, the Cleveland suburb of Solon lodged a complaint with the Ohio Public Utilities Commission over outages in May and June that were blamed on outdated equipment and inefficient tree trimming.

City officials filed the complaint after three meetings between the utility and city council failed to end the outages, said David Kovass, an attorney representing Solon.

“We heard reports of tree branches falling on the lines,” Mr. Kovass said. “They had surges and dimming. On Memorial Day weekend, they had power outages that would last four to five hours at a time.”

In an appearance with Mr. Abraham yesterday, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft told reporters he expects full cooperation from Akron-based FirstEnergy in federal and state probes.

“I expect FirstEnergy to do everything in their power to assess the liability of their systems to identify the possible cause of the failure and work with federal and state authorities,” Mr. Taft said.

Grid operators in New York, Michigan, Ohio and New Jersey — that lost power — and New England, which mostly did not, have gathered data for the investigation. Utility regulators in New York also announced yesterday they would start their own inquiry into the outage. According to the state Public Service Commission, 89 percent of New York customers lost power.

The U.S.-Canadian team will examine the computer logs detailing these failures when they take over several separate investigations already under way. Officials close to the investigation have said an interim report could be released by mid-September, although a final report may be months away.

Also yesterday, FirstEnergy restated earnings for all of last year and the first quarter of this year, educing its results by $99 million. The company attributed the restatement to an accounting adjustment. The first quarter 2003 restatement lowered earnings by $22.5 million, or 8 cents per share, to $218.5 million, or 74 cents per share.

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