Benson, Wimberly and Giblin Bill to Hold Public Utilities Accountable, Improve Storm Response Clears Assembly

(TRENTON) – Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Dan Benson, Benjie Wimberly and Thomas Giblin to improve the response of public utility companies to major storms and hold them accountable was approved Monday by the General Assembly.

The bill is in response to the power outages following Hurricane Sandy in late October 2009 that left many residents without power until Thanksgiving, and the more recent outages following the back-to-back nor’easters that knocked out power for tens of thousands of New Jersey residents for weeks at a time. These power outages prompted the Board of Public Utilities to hold public hearings.

“Some residents were without power for weeks, making the devastation of these storms even worse. This is unacceptable,” said Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex). “This ensures that utilities have suitable response plans that can be enforced to mitigate the impact on residents when the next big storm hits, and holds them accountable when they fail to implement them.”

“Extended power outages are not just inconvenient, but potentially dangerous when it impacts residents with debilitating health issues,” said Wimberly (D-Bergen/Passaic). “The response from the public utilities to recent storms has been lackluster. This bill pushes them to do better.”

“Having residents go without power for weeks is strenuous and further delays the recovery process,” said Giblin (D-Essex/Passaic). “This will ensure that the public utilities are well prepared to minimize the impact on residents so they can get back on their feet sooner than later.”

The bill (A-2426) , known as “The Reliability, Preparedness, and Storm Response Act,” would require the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) to develop and enforce performance benchmarks for service reliability, service disruption, service restoration, and communications for electric public utilities that distribute electricity to end users within New Jersey.

The bill would require every electric public utility to file an emergency response plan with the BPU that reflects the performance benchmarks established by the BPU. This plan would serve as an official plan of action for each electric public utility in the event of a widespread power outage and is to include, but not be limited to:

· the identification of management staff responsible for electric public utility operations during an emergency;

· an explanation of the electric public utility’s system of communication with customers during an emergency that extends beyond normal business hours and business conditions;

· a history of contacts with customers that report or document to the electric public utility a need of essential electricity for medical reasons;

· designation of electric public utility staff to communicate with local officials and relevant regulatory agencies;

· provisions regarding how the electric public utility will assure the safety of its employees and contractors;

· procedures for deploying electric public utility and mutual aid crews to work assignment areas;

· the designation and prioritization of areas where a power outage may result in the malfunctioning of septic systems or the loss of drinkable water due to customers’ use of electric well water pumps;

· strategies to address flooding, wind damage, and vegetation management; and

· identification of supplies and equipment anticipated to be needed by the electric public utility during an emergency and the means of obtaining additional supplies and equipment.

The bill would also require the BPU to establish and enforce separate standards concerning service reliability, service disruption, service restoration, and communications for public utilities that are not electric public utilities, and would require each of those public utilities to annually submit a service reliability plan and an emergency communications plan to the BPU.

The bill would also require the BPU to undertake a detailed and comprehensive study of public utility service reliability in the state, to prepare a report on the study, and to submit the report to the governor and the Legislature. The bill reaffirms the BPU’s authority to open an investigation to review the performance or communications of any public utility during a disruption of service in the public utility’s service area. If the BPU finds that certain harms occurred as a result of a public utility’s failure to follow an applicable emergency response plan, an applicable service reliability plan, or an applicable emergency communications plan, the BPU may impose certain civil administrative penalties. The bill authorizes the BPU to fine any public utility for failing to file a required plan in a timely manner.

The bill would increase the maximum civil penalties paid by all public utilities, subject to the jurisdiction of the BPU, for violating any law, rule, regulation, or order by the BPU. Under the bill, civil penalties would increase from $100 per day to $25,000 per day for each violation, but penalties would not to exceed $2,000,000 for any series of related events.

The bill would also extend the applicability of these civil penalties to include failure to meet the performance benchmarks described in an emergency response plan and failure to meet standards described in a service reliability plan or an emergency communications plan.

Under the bill, the penalties collected would go back to utility customers in a manner to be determined by the BPU.

The bill was approved 77-0 by the Assembly and now awaits further consideration by the Senate.