Op-Ed: Demanding assurances for the future

BOSTON — During the night of December 11, 2008, a terrible ice storm struck New England. Over a million people lost power in the initial aftermath of the storm. While all six towns in the 37th Middlesex District had extensive damage, my own town of Lunenburg, as well as the towns of Ashby, Townsend and the city of Fitchburg were some of the most heavily impacted municipalities in the state.

Unitil, the electricity provider for these four municipalities, proved to be woefully unprepared. While other public utilities were enacting their storm response plans, conducting damage assessments and using mutual aid agreements to deploy large numbers of crews, Unitil was unsure where to begin. Unitil had an emergency action plan, but they had never tested the plan in drills or during smaller storms.

In the months since this storm, I have listened to hours of testimony, testified in two hearings, met with the Attorney General’s office and read expert testimony collected through their investigation. I requested, and was granted, a seat on the Committee on Telecommunications, Public Utilities and Energy to address the long-term issues stemming from this storm. My basic concern remains the same: there is insufficient protection for consumers under current law. These legal restrictions will most likely lead the Department of Public Utilities to fine Unitil and place them on a probationary period, requiring them to provide an additional level of reporting. While this is a start, probation and fines do not adequately protect consumers in the case of future power outages.

As other companies have shown, emergency restoration plans are effective because they give the company and the communities a blueprint of what to do and expect in an emergency. The DPU will expect Unitil to file a plan with them as they have in the past, but we have seen that having a plan on file does not mean that it will be successfully deployed. We need the DPU to demand real accountability. We need to be able to reassure the public that they will be protected by the agency that oversees this company, but I fear they cannot or will not provide this assurance. My only recourse is to change the law to provide this protection to my constituents, press the AG to further investigate, and hold the DPU accountable any way I can.

I am working with the rest of the legislature to provide better utility consumer protections such as the ability for the state to take over management in an emergency and levy more significant fines that will dramatically impact utility companies’ profit margins. It is also important to allow municipalities more power over their own utility management by providing an easier path for the creation of municipal power departments.

It is not clear to me that the result of the DPU and legislative actions can fully prevent a recurrence of a situation like we had this winter, but we must move forward and take what steps we can, working toward a more predictable future.