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State utilities seek to evade fines from Hurricane Irene, 2011 snowstorm

Massachusetts utilities are seeking to overturn penalties totaling $22.8 million for their companies' performances during two 2011 storms.

Hurricane Irene claims the life of a tree. Photo: Nicolaus Czarnecki/Metro Hurricane Irene uprooted trees, among other damage. Credit: Nicolaus Czarnecki/Metro

Seeking to overturn penalties totaling $22.8 million for their performance during two 2011 storms, including Hurricane Irene, utility companies argued to the state’s highest court Monday that the Department of Public Utilities did not vet evidence before issuing the fines.

“The department’s finding is based upon sweeping conclusions that merely indicate what certain customers, a number of customers, said in either letters of complaint or during the public hearings in the community, a recitation of what they said, with no validation, no follow-up and no reference to significant record evidence …. that led to a contrary conclusion,” Robert Keegan, an attorney for Western Massachusetts Electric and NSTAR, told the Supreme Judicial Court.

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WMeco was fined $2 million, NSTAR was fined $4.1 million, and National Grid was fined $18.7 million after what the DPU said was an insufficient response to storm damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene and a late October snowstorm.

“The utilities’ complaint here is not that they didn’t have evidence in the record, but that they didn’t balance it the way that the utilities propose that this court should, and they reached determinations that the utilities do not like,” said Deputy Attorney General Chris Barry-Smith.

After a 2008 ice storm left some residents without power for extended periods, the state passed a law requiring the DPU to set standards for storm response, and the state argued the penalties had been in accordance with that 2009 law.

"The utilities' failings during the 2011 storms left thousands without power and warranted these record fines,” Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a statement.

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