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Senators grill utilities over Isaias response

Senator decries LIPA, PSEG response

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Members of the State Senate joined the Public Service Commission, Long Island Power Authority and PSEG Long Island officials in a 13-hour virtual hearing on Aug. 20 to discuss what many said was the failed response to the damage caused by Tropical Storm Isaias on Aug. 4.

State Sen. Jim Gaughran, a Democrat from Northport who represents Sea Cliff, Glen Head, Glen Cove and Oyster Bay, among other communities, said the PSC has oversight over utilities such as Consolidated Edison, which provides electricity to New York City and Westchester County, but not over PSEG.

Gaughran explained that the LIPA Reform Act of 2013 gave oversight of PSEG to LIPA instead of the PSC, which oversees most other parts of the state.

“Part of my frustration is when I listen to [other senators] talking about trying to get the commission to go after Con Ed and this, that and the other thing,” Gaughran told the PSC representatives, “I’m jealous because your wonderful commission doesn’t have the authority to do that here for Long Island.”

Thomas Congdon, executive deputy and deputy chairman of the State Department of Public Service,  which includes the PSC, said it has some oversight over PSEG, but not at the level it does for other utilities across the state. The contract that LIPA has with PSEG, however, does include a provision enabling termination of the agreement for poor performance, Congdon noted. Termination could be pursued if further investigations were to find it necessary, he said, although that action would fall under LIPA’s jurisdiction, not the PSC’s.

In addressing PSEG’s response to Isaias, Gaughran commended the workers on the ground in the storm’s aftermath. He said, though, that communication between PSEG LI and its crews was a “total failure,” and added that many crews spent hours waiting for orders from PSEG before being assigned to a job.

Gaughran said that LIPA has storm reserve funds that are accessible by PSEG, although they are not available to compensate for errors such as unassigned crews waiting because they did not receive timely communications.

LIPA CEO Thomas Falcone said the authority is reviewing the storm response by PSEG, and reserves the right to reject costs if they were unwarranted. There is also a third-party audit, Falcone said, whenever federal money is involved — in this case, acquiring recovery funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is possible.

“We have a very thorough review process,” he said, “and we’ll see what we turn up.”

Gaughran asked Falcone how many full-time employees LIPA has to oversee storm preparation and management for future storms. Falcone did not give a definitive answer, instead saying PSEG is responsible for implementing systems and testing their reliability. LIPA’s role, he said, is to verify that they work.

In the days after the hearing, Gaughran said he was largely dissatisfied by the responses that LIPA and PSEG officials gave senators. He said that Falcone and PSEG President and COO Daniel Eichhorn did not offer answers on how they might repair communications between PSEG and its customers.

“At the hearing, other than admitting that they totally failed in communication, they didn’t give any responses,” Gaughran said. “They didn’t tell us what they were going to do to fix the problem.”

After the storm, residents and officials across the North Shore decried PSEG’s lack of communication. It was unable, they said, to offer timely information on when power would be restored to some areas more than a week after the storm. And the outage map on its website was often inaccurate, indicating certain areas had power when they did not. This, Gaughran said, was unacceptable.

In a letter he sent to LIPA on Aug. 6, Gaughran asked about the authority’s plans to recover from Isaias and improve its systems. As of press time, he had not received an answer.

Gaughran said he wrote a bill in July, which passed the Senate and Assembly, that would give the PSC oversight authority over LIPA and PSEG. He said Long Islanders were hurt because of inaction by LIPA and PSEG, and giving the PSC the ability to sanction them would offer Long Islanders the same protection as people in most other parts of the state.

The bill now awaits Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature.

“I’m going to really push to pass my legislation that will give the Public Service Commission oversight authority regarding storms,” Gaughran said, “because I don’t think LIPA is capable of doing that at all.”