A coalition of environmental and consumer groups has demanded equal time from West Virginia's Appalachian Power Co., charging that the utility's use of bill stuffers to inveigh against acid rain controls was blatantly political, unconstitutional and downright unfair.
The coalition, headed by the National Wildlife Federation and West Virginia-Citizen Action Group, argues that if the utility wants to turn its mailing list into "a forum for political debate," the opposition should be allowed into the act.
In a formal complaint, the groups asked the Public Service Commission of West Virginia to make the power company foot the bill for another round of bill stuffers rebutting its acid rain argument.
The West Virginia complaint is the latest in a series of attacks on the bill inserts that have become an increasingly popular lobbying technique in the corporate world.
Last year, American Telephone and Telegraph Co. came under fire for using bill stuffers to stir up opposition to antitrust legislation. More recently, the banking industry earned the enmity of some members of Congress when it filled its customers' monthly statements with literature condemning a plan to withhold taxes from savings interest.
Public utilities have used the device for years to promote the use of new electrical devices, make the case for rate increases and give the industry position on such controversial matters as nuclear power. In 1980, the Supreme Court upheld the practice as a legitimate exercise of free speech.
But critics of the practice contend that public utilities have an added responsibility to be fair because of the regulated monopoly they enjoy, and their arguments have borne fruit in several states.
California's Public Utilities Commission, for example, recently approved a pilot program that will give a San Diego-based consumer group the right to put literature opposing rate hikes into San Diego Gas & Electric Co. bills.
The latest complaint contends that Appalachian Power "failed to operate in the public interest" when it used its mailing list and billing envelopes to rally opposition to acid rain legislation.
In its monthly bills for March, 1982, the utility, an affiliate of American Electric Power Co. Inc. (AEP), included a slender pamphlet bearing the headline, "Will you spend 20 cents to save yourself thousands of dollars?"
The pamphlet described acid rain as an "unproven problem" and warned of a "devastating economic impact" if legislation to curb sulfur dioxide emission from coal-fired power plants--believed to be the key precursor to acid rain--were enacted.