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State Fines Utilities Millions for 2011 Storm Responses

NStar was fined $4 million in responses to Tropical Storm Irene and the October 2011 snowstorm, but already announced it plans to appeal.

The state on Tuesday ordered a total of $24.8 million in penalties to utility companies for their response to storms in 2011.

Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rick Sullivan joined Department of Public Utilities (DPU) Chairman Ann Berwick and DPU commissioners today to announce the findings of the DPU’s investigation into responses to Tropical Storm Irene and the October 2011 snowstorm. 

Provided the penalties hold up, customers should see a reduction in their bill, though it is unclear how much, officials said. 

National Grid faces the steepest penalty, at $18.725 million; NSTAR has been ordered to pay $4.075 million; and Western Massachusetts Electric Company to pay $2 million.

Recognizing that outages are inevitable in storms of this magnitude, the DPU concluded that all of the utilities failed in their public safety obligation to respond to local public safety officials regarding downed wires. 

“As the number of serious weather events has risen dramatically in Massachusetts, it’s crucial for ratepayers to have electric service that is both safe and reliable,” Sullivan said in a press release. “I am grateful to the Department of Public Utilities for its thorough investigation into these storm responses and we are hopeful that its findings, penalties, and directives will ensure improved preparedness and services during weather events in the future.”

With respect to NSTAR, nearly half of whose customers lost power during Tropical Storm Irene, the state found that in many important respects the company performed reasonably under the circumstances, including pre-storm preparations and post-storm damage assessment. However, the DPU decided that in many instances the company took far too long to respond to priority calls from public safety officials regarding downed wires and did a poor job of communicating with customers. 

In the October snowstorm, many customers received phone calls from NSTAR announcing that their power had been restored, when in fact they were still in the dark. The DPU also ordered NSTAR to make certain improvements to its vegetation management program. 

NSTAR issued a press release that it already intended to appeal the $4 million fine. The company would need to appeal the fine to the state's Supreme Judicial Court.

The three utilities are required to submit their plans for penalty payment to the state within 30 days.

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