‘Shame on you, Pepco,’ residents say at D.C. Council hearing

July 13, 2012

Dozens of irate residents and business owners lashed out at Pepco officials Friday during the first public hearing on the electric company’s response to the widespread power outages caused by last month’s violent storms.

At a heated D.C. Council hearing, which stretched well into the evening, witnesses spoke of spoiled food, sweltering nursing-home rooms, credit-card-busting hotel bills, and dangerous trips up and down dark stairwells due to powerless elevators. And they vented their frustration over how long it took Pepco to get the power back on.

One disgruntled customer said simply: “Shame on you, Pepco. Shame on you, Pepco.”

Despite residents’ concerns — including outrage over reports that Pepco’s chief executive, Joseph M. Rigby, made $7.2 million last year — only three council members showed up for the hearing.

But D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), chairman of the Public Services and Consumer Affairs Committee, stressed that it was just the beginning of the city’s efforts to hold Pepco accountable for the outage that persisted in some neighborhoods for a week.

“We are just as angry and fed up as you are,” said Alexander, who was joined by Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5).

With many residents urging the council to push for more underground power lines, Pepco officials said that such a project could cost more than $5 billion and take 30 years but that they were not opposed to it.

The process of placing lines underground, which Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and some council members support, would also damage trees, create traffic-snarling construction and leave the system more vulnerable to flooding, company officials said.

In prepared testimony, they told the council that the company was blindsided by the strength of the storm, a rare derecho with 70-mph winds.

“No overhead electric system is designed to withstand damage from hurricane-force events,” the testimony stated. “Unlike Hurricane Irene, utilities had little to no warning.”

Despite the damage, Pepco officials said, about two-thirds of the 69,000 customers in the District who lost power had it back within 48 hours.

“Pepco was the first [electricity supplier] in the region to complete restoration,” said Beverly L. Perry, vice president for external affairs at Pepco.

Overall, company officials said recent system upgrades have also slashed outages along major feeders by 50 percent and outage durations by 69 percent.

But residents were clearly tired of hearing the statistics.

Dwayne D. Hynes, who lives on Q Street NE and spent 21 years in the Army, told the council that he’s been to plenty of “not-too-pleasant places.”

“I can honestly say I have never experienced electricity reliability issues like the ones I’ve experienced since moving into the District, except for those three months I spent in Kuwait right after the war,” Hynes said. “Of course, they had the war and a bombed-out infrastructure to blame.”

Hearing similar tales from across the city, Alexander and fellow council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced a bill that would create a commission to identify where in the city more power lines could be buried. Almost 70 percent of the city’s power lines are already buried.

Under the bill, the installation would be paid for through a 4 percent assessment on electricity bills.

In an interview Friday on NewsChannel 8’s “NewsTalk with Bruce DePuyt,” Gray said he spoke to Rigby this week to stress that the District was interested in partnering with the company to place even more lines underground.

“I think Pepco realizes something different has to be done,” Gray said. “And this is a point where the city is willing to step up and be willing to assist.”

Yet, with emergency management officials telling the council that they fear even more damaging storms this summer and fall, much of the discussions centered on short-term and mid-term solutions.

Jim Griffin, president of the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, which represents 1,100 Pepco linemen, told the council members that the company’s effort to cut costs has hampered post-outage restoration efforts.

He said that Pepco has 123 line mechanics but that only 29 are experienced enough to restore service directly from a pole to a house.

In 1993, Griffin testified, Pepco had 209, despite fewer residents in the area at that time.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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