THE ELECTRIC UTILITIES have never been anyone's favorite. And even with Ralph Nader vying for the spot, they remain their own worst enemy. We say this as frequent (and much excoriated) defenders of utility company policies and price rises that, to put it mildly, are not universally loved. That is, we think the utilities very often take a bum rap for what they do. But if you asked us whether the utilities, as a whole, didn't ask for it and seem invariably to make it worse, you wouldn't even get the beginning of an argument.
An now for this week's main attraction: The Metropolitan Edison Company of Three Mile Island fame. It is hard to think how an organization could top the record it compiled during the week-that-was for calous, thoughtless, mindless, no-confidence-inspiring public statements. It didn't happen and wasn't such a much a besides it would be all right any minute now and things were looking up and every day in every way the hydrogen bubble was getting smaller and smaller-or something. Not a direct quote, to be sure, but a pretty faithful rendering of the impression that was being created by the ineffable Metropolitan Edison spokesmen, fortunately to be regularly corrected by the infinitely more straightforward spokesman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a kind of one-man Greek chorus named Harold Denton.
We said it was hard to think how Metropolitan Edison's record for infelicitous responses during the week could be topped. But nothing, as it seems, is too hard for the folks at Metropolitan Edison. And by Thursday of the second week, as we should have expected, they came through. Here it is, lifted out of Friday's paper: Metropolitan Edison announced it "would refuse to pay its pregnant employees who were advised to evacuate." The proprietors of the damaged plant itself making those employees who has been told to get out pay the cost? The very place where those employees were working in good faith and which exposed them to terrible danger?
The question of who pays is bound to be a big and complicated issue in the cleaning up after the Three Mile Island accident. Insurance and liability questions are beyond counting, and there will be plenty of hard argument about how much responsibility public and private parties of every kind should bear. But one question doesn't strike us as hard at all. It is the question of whether those evacuated employees or Metropolitan Edison should be made to pick up the tabl for lost days of work. If utilities people in other jurisdictions want to know what is giving their line of business such a bad name, they need only reflect for a moment on the fact that Metropolitan Edison doesn't even know what the answer to that very simple question should be.