BPU hears it from officials, residents on storm response Byram meeting first of five on power company's actions
NJ Board of Public Utilities Commissioners (from left) Upendra Chivukula, Joseph Fiordaliso and Dianne Solomon
Photos by Amy Shewchuk
BY AMY SHEWCHUK BYRAM — The New Jersey State Board of Public Utilities began its first of 5 investigative forums last Thursday at Byram Intermediate School in response to 3 consecutive storms this March that left thousands of residents statewide without power for extended periods of time. The BPU is the state agency with authority to oversee regulated utilities such as natural gas, electricity, water, cable television and telecommunications. The law requires the Board to ensure safe, adequate and proper utility services at reasonable rates. It is also charged with consumer protection and addressing complaints. BPU Commissioners Upendra Chivukula, Joseph Fiordaliso and Dianne Solomon heard comments from various townships’ mayors, councilmen, elected officials and residents. The panel made clear to all who had comments that questions could not be answered, as the investigation is ongoing. “This is a fact-finding mission,” Fiordaliso said. “We won’t be taking any questions or providing any answers. We have Board Staff and we also have representatives from JCP&L here. Additionally we have the Director of Security and Liability Jim Giuliano and one of his team members, Joe Costa. They are the guys that are called to action when we have situations like Hurricane Sandy or other catastrophes and ‘nor easter’s in the State.” Fiordaliso also introduced Stacy Petersen, representative from the NJ Division of Energy, BPU Executive Director Paul Flanagan, and other expert staff. “You have good representation here is the bottom line,” he said. JCP&L, the power company that serves most of Sussex County and has been much criticized for slow and poorly coordinated responses to the storms, was represented by president Jim Fakult. “I just want to thank you for having the session," Fakult said. "I want to acknowledge and understand the magnitude of the storms we had and the impact it had on all of our local officials and the communities they serve. Certainly that is taken to heart by me and I want to thank everyone for their patience in getting through these long events. We are here and committed as ever to take this feedback to heart and have already started internal processes to learn from these events and will continue to get better." Byram Mayor Alex Rubenstein touched on a few points of frustration for Byram residents, a major issue being misinformation from JCP&L by way of “robo-calls” that gave inaccurate time frames for power restoration. “This information was very confusing to residents,” Rubenstein said. “ I would think by now with the technology we have that this shouldn’t still be an issue. “What it comes down to is customer expectation. When you set an expectation and don’t meet it, that is far worse than setting an expectation that is realistic. ,Situations have occurred where people would call outage report phone numbers and they would receive a call back saying their power was restored, as they were sitting in the dark.” Rubenstein added: “I will say that once the crews got their work orders and their boots were on the ground those guys were great, they got the job done. They were out there working in blinding snow and ice in bucket trucks fixing stuff. They did great work.” Several residents spoke of their personal experiences with miscommunication from the power companies and what inconveniences and cost they endured during their long stretches without power. Byram Councilman Harvey Roseff questioned management priorities at the power company. ”There is a monopoly in utility management and delivery of services which is a very important role that I don’t think should just be limited to emergency response," Roseff said. "I think this should be an ongoing process. What concerns me most is we seem to be managing our grid more actively after an emergency than a continual day to day process of preventative maintenance and infrastructure improvement. It seems we are using storms to then allocate resources for what should have been done on a continual basis. “This is also true of the tree pruning program,” Roseff continued. "We have all of our lines above ground which also requires us to be more intensive and focused on pruning our trees. We have to add judgment beyond the 6 feet rule being near power lines. Tree crews are not allowed to deviate and use their judgment. It’s not 6 foot, its the judgment — if you know at some point that tree is going to do a lot of damage and whether the network is at risk due to that tree. I think that should be left to the tree crew’s judgment, not just the utility company.” Sussex County Freeholder Herbert Yardley had views similar to Roseff's regarding the pruning of trees and noted that power companies should be required by law to have a written plan for emergencies. He also acknowledged the frustration of residents with the misinformation sent to residents regarding power restoration. “Residents are looking for a plan so they have correct information. It is better to tell me ‘we have such a catastrophic event that we are evaluating that we can’t give you a definite date’ than to tell me ‘tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.'” Yardley said. State Assemblyman Harold Wirths (R-Sussex) said the main problem was crews waiting for work orders. ”You know how they say in life there’s usually too many managers and not enough workers, well I think this may be a case of too many workers and not enough managers," Wirths said. "No one has more respect for the lineman than I do. They are some of the hardest working people out there with some of the most dangerous jobs. They simply didn’t have the work orders and were literally falling over each other waiting to make it to work. Also adding to the frustration was that people would see the trucks sitting idle and wonder ‘why aren’t they fixing the lines?’ So, a lot of work has to be done.” Other elected officials, including Mayor Sam Morris of Mine Hill Township and Mayor George Harper of Sandyston Township, also noted inefficiencies in JCP&L’s deployment of crews and receiving work orders, noting that fleets of trucks would be sitting idle, sometimes waiting for hours to be given permission to work in a certain area or on a specific problem. Mayor Timothy McDonough of Hope Township was less critical of the power company. ”I was very critical of JCP&L after Hurricane Sandy,” he said. “But this past series of storms was the worst I have ever seen in all my years as a mayor. I have seen a definite change in the attitude of that company. Communication has made leaps and bounds, not only before but during and after these recent storms. Our responsibility as elected officials is to let residents know that there are stages to restoration-the number one goal is to open roads up and getting crews out there. We need to do a better job in letting our residents know the process so they understand it better so if they see trucks coming and going or parked that there are the stages involved in restoration.” “This was a major act of Mother Nature,” said Mayor Jim Perry of Hardwick Township, “Warren County was one of the hardest hit by these storms and power outages. I don’t fault in any way the response from JCP&L with the type of storms that we had. The amount of damage was worse than Hurricane Sandy. Before they could even get to restoring power they had to get through the trees so they could get to the power lines. If you look back from Sandy to now, 90-99% of the time power goes out in our areas and they are right on top of it. I’m not saying things can’t be improved but nobody could have predicted the magnitude of damage from this storm. John Anderson of JCP&L has called, reached out to us and is formulating a plan. They have listened and communicated with us and I thank them for doing that. I think JCP&L and the other power and phone companies for what they were handed did a great job.” “You bring up a very good point," Commissioner Fiordaliso said in response to Perry. "What could be done better and that’s what this investigation is about. Not only what could the utilities do better but what we as the regulatory body can do better. It a learning experience for everyone and if we learn together and work together hopefully we can minimize the effects.” According to published reports after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 the BPU instituted a series of more than 100 utility company protocols ranging in topic from safety and response time to communication, mutual aid agreements and preparedness. Fiordaliso said that the goal of the BPU hearings are to determine whether New Jersey’s public utility companies are adhering to those protocols. If they are not, he said, they will be held accountable. Written comments may be submitted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or in writing to Aida Camacho-Welch, Secretary of the Board, Board of Public Utilities, 44 South Clinton Avenue, 3rd Floor, Suite 314, P.O. Box 350, Trenton, New Jersey 08625-0350 the BPU said that those filing written comments should reference “March 2018 Winter Storm Events comments Docket Number EO18030255 in the subject field for emails and in the heading of any written correspondence. Comments will be accepted until May 31, 2018 pertaining to these hearings. The next BPU open forum will be Thursday, April 12th from 4-7pm at the Parsippany Troy-Hills Town Hall located at 1001 Parsippany Boulevard. Dates for the three following forums will be announced.