WASHINGTON - FirstEnergy Corp. tried to
bat down growing criticism that it was a chief contributor to last
month's power blackout, telling a congressional panel Thursday that
its system appeared to be stable until just minutes before the
sweeping outage started.
But the Akron utility found itself on the hot seat before the
House Energy and Commerce Committee, as several congressmen grilled
the company about its activities in the hours leading to the
U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a longtime critic of the
nuclear industry, accused FirstEnergy of engaging in a ``pattern of
neglect'' going back several years, including problems at its
Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, violations of the Clean Air Act and
viruses in its computers.
``From what I can tell, FirstEnergy should not have a license to
drive a car, let alone operate a nuclear power plant and an
electricity generation, transmission and distribution system,'' he
said. ``All of the evidence here focuses on FirstEnergy as the
culprit in this blackout. And you appear to be trying to shift the
The public airing, which lasted more than four hours, was the
first time FirstEnergy Corp. officials have spoken at length about
the power outage that left millions of people in the United States
and Canada without lights, refrigeration and air conditioning for
The company kept its message simple: The blackout -- the largest
in American history -- was too big to have been FirstEnergy's
Other power companies in the Midwest and Northeast had operating
problems that day, and it's too early to point fingers, said H.
Peter Burg, FirstEnergy's chairman and chief executive.
``We strongly believe that such a widespread loss of power could
only result from a combination of events, not from a few isolated
events,'' he testified.
He acknowledged that several FirstEnergy facilities shut down in
the hours leading to the blackout, which occurred shortly after 4
p.m. Aug. 14.
At 1:31 p.m., the company's coal generation plant in Eastlake
tripped out. In the following hours, four transmission lines tripped
out of service because of overloads.
But Burg insisted that during that time, the company's power
systems and flows corrected themselves, and the overall system was
balanced and stable until shortly before the blackout.
Also during this time, FirstEnergy employees had problems with
computers and were unable to see what was going on, according to
excerpts of telephone calls between FirstEnergy and the Midwest
Independent Transmission System Operator Inc., a regional
transmission organization that coordinates the flow of electricity
across parts of 15 states.
But Burg said the company was in constant communication with
other system operators and plant operators, as well as officials of
the Midwest ISO.
``It is understandable that everyone is looking for the straw
that broke the camel's back,'' Burg said. ``But there is no one
straw. They're all heaped together.''
Burg, who has kept a low public profile for months, brought a
small army with him to the House Energy and Commerce Committee
hearing room. In addition to company lawyers, he had engineers,
public relations staffers and lobbyists from the company's
None of them spoke to the committee except for Burg. His
responses were mild-mannered and polite. He rarely volunteered any
information, mostly answering questions directly asked of him.
He appeared as part of a panel of seven utility executives from
Ohio, New York, Illinois, Massachusetts and Michigan.
During a brief interview with the Akron Beacon Journal during a
break, Burg said he didn't mind the grilling.
``I really believe, in my heart of hearts, that this committee
wants to find solutions, wants to get to the bottom of this matter
so it doesn't happen again,'' Burg said.
Response to critics
And in response to criticisms on Wednesday from Michigan
officials that FirstEnergy should have called to warn at least an
hour in advance that the transmission grid was crumbling, Burg
dismissed that as impossible.
``There was no knowledge an hour beforehand that the grid was
getting out of control,'' he told the Beacon Journal. ``I'll say
that again and again if you like. It looked stable to us until the
But some members of Congress pressed the point. Rep. Bart Stupak,
D-Mich., asked Burg at least three times whether FirstEnergy called
anyone in the hours leading up to the blackout.
``Who did you notify?'' he said. ``At what point did you say,
`This is out of control, things are going haywire'?... There seems
to be no accountability or responsibility here.''
Burg responded that FirstEnergy was in contact with neighboring
utilities and the Midwest ISO.
Several congressmen and energy experts have criticized power
companies for not spending more to upgrade transmission lines to
keep up with growing demand for electricity.
But Burg pointed out that FirstEnergy spent $433 million on
transmission upgrades and operations between 1999 and 2002, with
nearly $200 million of that spent in Ohio.
That investment has paid off in performance over the years, with
no sustained outages in the last three years until last