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Posted on Fri, Sep. 05, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
FirstEnergy on defensive
Congress members grill Akron company's CEO about utility's actions before blackout

Beacon Journal business writer
FirstEnergy CEO H. Peter Burg testifies Thursday at the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings on the Aug. 14 blackout. ``It is understandable that everyone is looking for the straw that broke the camel's back,'' he said. ``But there is no one straw.''
FirstEnergy CEO H. Peter Burg testifies Thursday at the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings on the Aug. 14 blackout. ``It is understandable that everyone is looking for the straw that broke the camel's back,'' he said. ``But there is no one straw.''

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 blackout.

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 blame elsewhere.''

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 hours.

The company kept its message simple: The blackout -- the largest in American history -- was too big to have been FirstEnergy's fault.

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.

Computer troubles

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 Washington office.

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 last minute.''

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 month.

John Russell can be reached at 330-996-3550 or jrussell@thebeaconjournal.com
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