By STEPHEN SINGER, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Connecticut’s attorney general said Wednesday he will research whether the state’s largest power utility broke any laws in its handling of outages that left thousands of people in the cold and the dark for more than a week in the wake of a pre-Halloween snowstorm.
Connecticut Light & Power is facing at least five investigations into the outages triggered by the Oct. 29 storm, which brought trees down on power lines across the state and cut electricity to a total of more than 830,000 customers. But the probe by Attorney General George Jepsen could carry the most serious consequences.
Jepsen told The Associated Press in an interview that his office will develop a legal theory that could determine if CL&P violated any laws. He is asking the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to gather emails, correspondence and other documents to determine if CL&P had a plan to manage its electrical system during and after the storm.
Power has been restored to the vast majority of customers, but several thousand remained in the dark as of Wednesday and Jepsen said he does not believe outrage by customers and elected officials will fade anytime soon.
“There’s a level of anger I’ve not seen in 56 years,” he said. “People are already stressed economically and stressed because of the severity of last winter’s storms and Irene. People are very stressed. They’re at the breaking point.”
Jepsen would not speculate what laws CL&P could have violated. The state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority governs how the utility runs its business in numerous ways, such as the accuracy of meters, conservation and the safety and reliability of the electric distribution system. In theory at least, any of the authority’s requirements could have been breached in an outage as lengthy as the one caused by last month’s storm.
Jepsen noted that state regulation actually could make it harder to prosecute.
`If CL&P did what regulators asked it to do, it’s harder to establish liability,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Hartford-based Northeast Utilities, the parent company of CL&P, said the number of investigations is to be expected because the outages affected so many residents and businesses for so long.
“I think that in order for all the stakeholders to feel they are involved, we’re going to need these many investigations,” spokeswoman Marie van Luling said.
Northeast Utilities announced Wednesday it will pay for a review of its preparedness and response to the snowstorm. It also offered $10 million to establish a fund to help residential customers who experienced losses because of the storm.
As of midday Wednesday, 11 days after the storm, some 3,500 customers in the state were still in the dark. Connecticut Light & Power has missed several self-imposed deadlines, including a pledge to restore electricity to 99 percent of its customers by Sunday night. But the utility said it aimed to restore power to everyone by midnight Wednesday.
In Simsbury, a Hartford suburb where 1,000 customers were still without power, First Selectman Mary Glassman said officials were disregarding the utility’s timetables and telling people not to expect their power back until Friday.
She said schools opened Wednesday, which provided a degree of normalcy, but she was concerned about the stress residents are under from the extended outages.
“People are emotionally wracked at this point,” she said.
Jepsen said at least three lawyers in his office will be working on the inquiry.
“We have lawyers who are accustomed to antitrust investigations, whose backgrounds lend themselves to litigation,” Jepsen said.
Several other reviews of the storm response are under way.
The Washington, D.C.-based disaster response consulting firm Witt Associates has offered to review the preparedness and responses of both CL&P and the United Illuminating Co. to the October storm. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said there will also be reviews conducted by the Public Utility Regulatory Authority, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.
On Wednesday, Malloy formally requested that the committee he created to review the response to the remnants of Hurricane Irene to now examine the aftermath of the autumn nor’easter. The so-called Two Storm Committee is looking into the preparedness, response and recovery efforts of the state, municipalities, nonprofit agencies and the utilities. It is expected to present recommendations in December.
Malloy said many citizens have “lost faith” in CL&P and the company “now begins the hard, hard process of demonstrating to the citizens of Connecticut that they are deserving of their status as our utility company for so much of the state, deserving of the monopoly status that they have.”
He added: “It has been shaken to the core and it is going to take a lot of hard work on their part.”
Associated Press writers Susan Haigh and Michael Melia contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)