- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 14, 2012

Pepco officials told a D.C. Council committee on Friday they are ready and willing to enter serious talks with customers and the city government about burying power lines in the District, an expensive proposition that is viewed as an antidote to power outages like those that afflicted the region during a heat wave this month.

Thomas H. Graham, region president for the utility, told the council’s Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs that his much-maligned company understood the devastating effects the storm-related outages and took a hands-on approach to restoration efforts.

Committee Chairman Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, opened the hearing by tabulating the effects of the June 29 “derecho,” a severe windstorm that quickly took out electricity through a wide swath of the mid-Atlantic region. More than a million customers lost power in the D.C. area — 443,000 of those Pepco customers, with about 66,000 of them in the District, Ms. Alexander said.

She said the timing could not have been worse because it occurred during a heat wave in which temperatures crested 100 degrees. Outrage over the outages and persistent complaints about Pepco’s reliability prompted city lawmakers to schedule Friday’s hearing.

In their testimony, Pepco officials stressed the widespread damage the storm caused in their coverage area.

“It’s a hurricane without warning that came through our territory,” David Velazquez, executive vice president of power delivery for Pepco, said of the derecho, before touting their mobilization. “This was an all-hands event, 24 hours a day.”

He said they immediately requested outside help, although “no company got its full request” because of heavy demand among utility companies in the region.

But disgruntled witnesses on Friday decried Pepco’s request for a rate increase, the cost of spoiled food after the latest storm and the risks that seniors and the disabled face amid prolonged outages.

Dwayne Hynes, a Ward 5 resident, said reliability issues in the D.C. area are far worse than anything he faced as an overseas Army officer, “save the three months I spent in Kuwait after the war.”

“Of course, they had the bombed-out infrastructure to blame,” he said. “Apparently that’s not nearly as bad as vegetation in the District.”

Jim Griffin, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1900, said attrition has stripped Pepco of the number of line mechanics needed to keep up with increasing demand on the local power grid. If staffing had been up to par, the utility would not have needed assistance from places such as Oklahoma and Quebec and “we would not have had to wait two or three additional days to start repairing the damage,” he testified.

Sandra Mattavous-Frye, the D.C. People’s Counsel who advocates on behalf of ratepayers, said summer outages in the District have become a “seasonal ritual.”

“We need to shift gears,” she said, rating Pepco’s performance as somewhere between “poor” and “terrible.”

Mayor Vince C. Gray, whose Ward 7 home did not have power for five days after the storm, has also argued the city needs a “game-change” to quell fears about Pepco’s reliability.

Mr. Gray is seriously considering a long-term capital project to bury power lines across the city, since underground lines spared much of downtown from the brunt of the storm and the majority of outages are blamed on fallen tree branches.

The project could cost more than $5 billion and take decades, but officials say the expense is worth it in comparison to the expenses incurred by repeated power outages. In the meantime, city lawmakers said lines should be buried whenever the ground is excavated for new construction or streetscape projects.

Pepco officials indicated they are willing to sit down with city leaders to formulate a plan, although they have warned lawmakers of the cost.

Paul Quander, deputy mayor for public safety, testified that Mr. Gray is interested in “any and all options that will prevent an event liked his from occurring (again).”

“The time for continuing to talk and theorize is over,” Mr. Quander said. “He wants to do it and get it done.”

Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat who bluntly criticized the utility in the wake of the storm, has called for a formal investigation into Pepco’s performance. In a letter to the city’s Public Service Commission, she said “this isn’t the first time that we, as public officials, have been left to grapple with why Pepco didn’t seem better prepared.”

Despite the uproar among city officials after the storm, only council members Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat, and Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, joined Ms. Alexander on the dais for the hearing. A spokeswoman for Ms. Cheh said the council member was on her way out of the country and had submitted extensive questions to the committee.

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