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FirstEnergy makes appeal on blackout

10/31/03

Tom Diemer and John Funk
Plain Dealer Bureau

Washington- FirstEnergy Corp. lobbyists fanned out on Capitol Hill this week, anticipating controversy over the impending release of a joint U.S.-Canadian report on the causes of the blackout that darkened homes and businesses for up to 24 hours last Aug. 14.

The Akron-based electric company contacted more than a dozen lawmakers from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Jersey in an apparent attempt to make a case that it should not be singled out by investigators, since, the lobbyists argued, a number of factors contributed to the widespread power failure.

Any task force recommendations calling for substantial reform of the nation's electric grid and its management would require congressional action.

In a 15-page computer presentation handed out to members of Congress and obtained by The Plain Dealer, FirstEnergy said the blackout report "must consider more than the 'usual suspects' of planning, isolated equipment failure, and operational errors."

Cleveland, Detroit, New York City, Toronto and other cities lost power last summer after several FirstEnergy power lines failed and electricity on the regional grid surged into Michigan and Canada, overloading the entire system. The utility faced a barrage of tough questions about its operations at a House Energy and Commerce hearing last month.

Other utilities and some energy consultants have accused FirstEnergy of poor maintenance and inadequate tree trimming schedules, and cited computer malfunctions that prevented its transmission operators from seeing timely data when the grid began to collapse.

In its lobbying memo, FirstEnergy said the joint task force report should consider "systemic pre-conditions that existed on Aug. 14 throughout the Eastern Interconnection" such as abnormal voltage and frequency levels.

"It's simply to communicate with our elected officials," said Ralph DiNicola, FirstEnergy's spokesman. "Elected officials have questions and we are providing them information that we have about our system and about what we are aware of in the region.

"Otherwise you could end up with exactly what we have said in public, with recommendations that do not prevent a recurrence," DiNicola said.

FirstEnergy also commissioned a study by an industry research group that supports the utility's contention that an unusually large amount of power was flowing into and through its system. The company says that conclusion absolves it from major culpability.

Deborah Setliff, press secretary to Rep. Steve LaTourette, said FirstEnergy's Mike Dowling told a LaTourette staffer that the company had not yet seen the report. But "they fear there may be some conclusions that overlook many important factors that FirstEnergy has tried to raise with investigators, including a host of abnormalities that occurred throughout the grid that day," she said.

Aides to Republican Sen. George Voinovich and Cleveland Democratic Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones gave similar accounts of encounters with FirstEnergy lobbyists. Patrice Willoughy, chief of staff to Tubbs Jones, said lobbyist Joel Bailey expressed concern that the report may not consider "all of the surrounding variables" that played a part in the cascading power crash.

Rep. Sherrod Brown, a Lorain Democrat who serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said his staff also listened to the FirstEnergy concerns.

"The Congress will ask FirstEnergy and the other energy companies all kinds of questions to prevent another blackout and FirstEnergy ought to be prepared to answer those questions," he said of the report's findings. "I think they are concerned because people's fingers have been pointed at them."

Every major utility is represented by lobbyists on Capitol Hill. American Electric Power in Columbus and Cinergy Corp. in Cincinnati also have supplied information to the task force. AEP spokesman Pat Hemlepp said he was not aware of any similar lobbying effort on behalf of his company. Cinergy spokesman Steve Brash said, "We didn't have any involvement in the blackout so we didn't have any reason to mount some sort of lobbying effort."

News that FirstEnergy is lobbying Congress came as no surprise to John Hanger, president of PennFuture, a watchdog group based in Harrisburg, Pa., that analyzes issues related to energy and the environment. It's considered "one of the most politically active utilities" in the country, he said.

At the Department of Energy, the lead U.S. agency in the investigation, spokeswoman Jeanne Lopatto said the task force would issue an interim report in two to three weeks analyzing "what happened and why it happened." A public comment period will follow, before release of a final report by the end of the year, she said.

She said she did not know whether FirstEnergy had made any "huge lobbying effort" with the Energy Department in advance of release of the report.

Plain Dealer reporter Peter Krouse contributed to this story.

Contact Tom Diemer at:

tdiemer@plaind.com, 216-999-4212


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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