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PSEG says it's ready for weekend storms; officials have their doubts

Mark Harrington and Bart Jones

PSEG Long Island, already under fire for its widely criticized response to Tropical Storm Isaias, on Thursday said it was "making preparations" for weekend storms, but officials voiced skepticism about those efforts.

PSEG on Thursday afternoon said it had called in hundreds of outside line workers to help with any restoration should remnants of Tropical Storm Laura impact the Long Island region overnight Sunday.

Notably, PSEG said it was resetting its outage-management computer system, which had been a prime source of many of its logistical troubles during Isaias, to a "previous, more stable version," while making "configuration and capacity changes" to its phone system, which was quickly overwhelmed during the past storm.

“We are closely monitoring … and will have a full complement of personnel to respond safely and as quickly as possible to any service interruptions it may cause,” John O’Connell, PSEG Long Island’s vice president of transmission and distribution operations, said in a statement on Thursday.

But elected officials, wary after PSEG's cascading problems following Isaias, expressed little relief from those assurances.

“Am I confident? No," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday when asked if he believed PSEG and others will do a good job responding to upcoming storms. "That’s why we need to change the law. I want to have real authority, legal authority, to penalize these utilities when they don’t perform.”

PSEG is still reeling from widespread criticism for its response to Isaias in which more than 420,000 of LIPA's 1.1 million customers lost power and most could not get through to the utility to report their outage or find out when their power would be restored.

Cuomo, who has already threatened to yank companies' state operating licenses, and PSEG's contract, put the utility companies on notice.

“Don’t be surprised, utility company. And don’t say, ‘Oh, it was a storm. It was an act of God.’ No. It’s an act of a utility company,” he told reporters in a telephone briefing Thursday. “We pay you to be prepared for the storm and to repair power in a short period of time after the storm.”

PSEG officials at state and Nassau Country hearings blamed much of the problem on the $30.6 million outage-management computer system PSEG installed in 2014, the year it took over the system from National Grid after the harshly criticized response to superstorm Sandy.

PSEG said the failure of the computer system led to cascading breakdowns in determining where outages were each day, as well as in attempts to filter out new from old outages.

That system failure was compounded by widespread communications breakdowns that left hundreds of thousands of customers frustrated as they attempted to call, text and email their outage reports to PSEG.

In the aftermath, Cuomo has threatened to revoke PSEG's operating contract, state Attorney General Letitia James is investigating and state and local legislators have grilled officials at public hearings.

One local lawmaker shared Cuomo's skepticism.

"I'm concerned they are not prepared for Laura or any other storms that may come our way," said State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport), who has authored several bills seeking to increase state oversight of PSEG. Gaughran said he has yet to receive a response from LIPA to a letter asking the authority what it's doing to force PSEG to take corrective actions.

He said he's also wary of LIPA's claims to be conducting full oversight of PSEG's storm operations.

"I'd like to know affirmatively from LIPA if they are doing any oversight," Gaughran said.

The authority has been "closely monitoring PSEG Long Island’s immediate, corrective actions to their emergency systems as well as their preparedness ahead of potential weather events … this weekend," LIPA said in a statement.

The authority added: "We are proceeding with the end-to-end review of these systems by third-party experts, and we will issue 30-day, 90-day, and 180-day reports on that independent, comprehensive review.”

Cuomo noted that under current law, the utilities might be fined around $100,000 if they don’t perform well — an amount he said they prefer to pay rather than hiring the extra crews they would need to do the job right. There is a statutory cap on the penalties, he said.

“It’s absurd,” Cuomo said. “Why would you have a statutory cap on a penalty? They should pay the penalty that is commensurate with the damage they did.”

He added: “I think some of them are just deciding, ‘I’d rather pay the penalty.’ It’s cheaper than remedying the problem.”

Cuomo called on the State Legislature to change the laws regarding the penalties and the ability of the government to revoke utilities' operating licenses.

“I don’t know why the State Legislature thinks they should be protecting these utilities from paying for the damage they caused consumers,” Cuomo said. “The current state law in many ways protects the utilities from any penalty and makes it difficult to revoke the franchise. Then you wonder why these utilities keep doing the same thing. Because it works for them. The penalties are just a cost of doing business, and the penalty is probably less than it would cost them to actually address the problem."