The Spark

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

Midwest ice storm:
Thousands freeze while power company profits soar

Dec 11, 2006

About half a million people in Missouri and Illinois, and hundreds of thousands in other states, lost their electric service when an early December snow and ice storm plowed through parts of the Midwest. Tens of thousands didn’t get their power back for a week or more. In the meantime, they suffered without lights and heat in the middle of record cold weather.

At least 25 people died in the storm, including two men dead of carbon monoxide poisoning, trying to use a charcoal fire to get warm. At least 43 others were hospitalized from carbon monoxide poisoning, as they tried any means at hand to avoid freezing to death.

Most of the power outages occurred in areas serviced by St. Louis-based Ameren Corporation. Ameren spokesmen claim that the company did its best to restore power quickly. But according to the Missouri Public Power Commission, this was Ameren’s fourth major, prolonged power outage in three years.

Experts say Ameren hasn’t been investing in upkeep, such as burying its power lines, putting up stronger lines, and trimming back trees near its lines. But Ameren doesn’t lack for money! Like most other utility and power generation companies, Ameren has been making money hand over fist.

During the months of July, August and September 2006 alone, Ameren made a profit of 293 million dollars – a rate of return on the stockholders’ investment of over 18%! Missouri’s Public Power Commission chairman, trying to save his own image, lectured Ameren: “The perception out there is maybe you guys have spent a little too much time on Wall Street and not enough time worrying about Main Street.”

This is undoubtedly true. But neither in Missouri and Illinois, nor anywhere else in the country, can utility customers expect politicians and commissioners to do anything about the problem – unless they are forced to do so. Those authorities are the very same people who have allowed the power companies to privatize and vastly increase their ripoff of customers and taxpayers.

Dependable power infrastructure can mean the difference between life and death in emergencies. If utility profits have to freeze, so that people caught in storms don’t freeze, then so be it. And right now!