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FirstEnergy area in N. J. was left in the dark back in July

08/31/03

Dave Davis and Peter Krouse
Plain Dealer Reporters

Speculation that mishaps in FirstEnergy's service territory in the Northeast triggered the largest blackout in U.S. history probably comes as little surprise to the residents of New Jersey.

That state's governor, James McGreevey, was so miffed after power outages along the central coast in July that he ordered the hiring of a special reliability master to ride herd on Jersey Central Power & Light, a FirstEnergy Corp. subsidiary.

Sporadic blackouts from the early afternoon of July 5 to early morning July 8 affected more than 40,000 customers and 10,000 tourists in and around Seaside Heights. It "stemmed from the lack of modernized infrastructure and investment in that infrastructure," said McGreevey's press secretary, Micah Rasmussen.

The problems occurred on a 34.5-kilovolt system serving the island community through three lines. One of the lines had been repaired just before that July weekend. The fault was near an area previously repaired after damage caused by a sewer company excavation.

Ken Hershey, mayor of Seaside Heights, said most of the tourists that weekend went home because of the power failures.

"The town was packed," said Hershey, who also owns the Big Top Arcade. "We lost millions of dollars. We have a big boardwalk - rides, attractions - and all that had to close down."

That weekend's blackouts were part of a spike in service interruption complaints throughout the state, which at last count totaled 294 this year. That's up from 222 at this time last year and 155 in 2001. FirstEnergy bought GPU Inc., which included Jersey Central and other utilities in Pennsylvania, in November 2001.

"We're certainly aware of the need to improve the reliability of that system, and we're committed to doing that," FirstEnergy spokesman Ralph DiNicola said.

Besides taking a series of steps to improve reliability in the Seaside Heights area, the company is investing in the rest of New Jersey, too. That includes the accelerated spending of $60 million over two years in addition to $240 million budgeted in 2003 for operation, maintenance and capital costs, DiNicola said.

Marie Maruca, executive director of the Seaside Heights Business Improvement District, said loss of power in her area, especially during the Fourth of July holiday when demand is high, has been a chronic problem the last several years, but not to the degree it was last month.

Maruca suggested that GPU had cut back on maintenance before its sale to FirstEnergy.

"I know when you're trying to sell a business you want your bottom line to look the best it can be," she said.

Jersey Central agreed to reimburse some businesses and residents for losses stemming from the July Fourth weekend. About $29,000 has been paid to merchants for lost revenue, Maruca said. Residents also are being reimbursed, she said, primarily for food that went bad in refrigerators.

The previous summer, Jersey Central came under scrutiny after it took three days to restore power to 35,000 customers after a storm. In a settlement reached in February with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, Jersey Central agreed to, among other things, increase staffing and to hire a consultant to help improve relations between management and the union.

This year, lawyers for the city of Solon asked Ohio regulators to intervene after FirstEnergy's Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. was unable to keep the power on in May and June. The outages affected hundreds of businesses and residents in the city.

And, in Pennsylvania, nearly 100,000 FirstEnergy customers in Erie, York and Reading lost power last November and December. Reports filed with state and federal regulators show that trees fell and equipment failed as snow piled up.

FirstEnergy spokesman DiNicola said the company has upgraded its system in Solon to fix problems. He said the company should not be held accountable for the fierce winter storm that knocked out power in Pennsylvania late last year.

"There was a big snowstorm Christmas Day," DiNicola said. "Big snowstorms bring branches down that go into wires and cause outages."

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

ddavis@plaind.com, 216-999-4808

pkrouse@plaind.com, 216-999-4834


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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