The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The nightmare wasn't Isabel - it was the power companies

Nov 3, 2003

Referring to Hurricane Isabel as the "storm of the century," "the most destructive in our history," power companies explained away their inability to restore electric service quickly in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. The excuses had a familiar ring, since they were similar to the ones the same companies had used after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 or even following power outages during rain storms this August..

Potomac Edison (Pepco), Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) and Virginia Dominion claim that it's all the fault of Mother Nature. The numbers tell a different story.

Pepco's spending on distribution lines fell between 2000 and 2002, although building is booming in the region. Ten years ago, according to the union at Pepco, the company had 209 overhead linemen; today there are 135.

BGE's maintenance spending declined from 43 million dollars in 2000 to 39 million in 2002. Dominion dropped routine tree trimming by a third, from 18 million dollars to 12 million in the past year.

BGE said that over half of its outages during the storm were caused by downed trees or fallen branches. But not a single outage happened in areas where the right of way was cleared. In other words, the big majority of the outages could have been prevented if BGE had spent money on tree trimming and clearing.

Another option is to bury power lines, which would have required coordination throughout the state and local political divisions. It would have also required that politicians force builders and developers in new areas to pay for putting in these lines – along with sewers, roads, etc.

However, a recent survey by MaryPIRG, Maryland Public Interest Research Group, showed that only 10 out of 23 Maryland counties get money from developers. Some don't get back a penny and even those that do got back only 33¢ on every dollar spent.

What's shocking is not that big storms cause problems. What's shocking is that big companies can always avoid their responsibilities to the consumers who pay the bills – thanks to their backing by the politicians.