LEVELAND, Aug. 21 — The huge gray cooling tower
of the Davis-Besse power plant stands along Lake Erie like a
monument to nuclear energy and industrial might. That it has been
idle for more than a year, though, makes it a testament to something
else, according to former employees and the federal regulators who
ordered it shut down.
The dormant plant, for them, is an example of neglect and poor
management by its owner, the FirstEnergy
Corporation, which allowed hazardous conditions to fester so
badly that a catastrophic accident may have been only months
The shutdown of Davis-Besse — the plant, outside Toledo, was
taken off-line after acid nearly ate through the reactor lid — is
the most extreme example of shortcomings in how FirstEnergy runs an
empire with 4.3 million customers across New Jersey, Pennsylvania
But it is not the only one.
Its New Jersey subsidiary has come under fire for frequent
blackouts, for inadequate maintenance and for allowing stray
electricity to run through the ground, leaving residents of Brick,
N.J., tingling when they step into pools and Jacuzzis.
And in northern Ohio, mayors have complained to state regulators
that power failures by FirstEnergy have become more frequent and
longer, forcing some to buy diesel-powered generators for municipal
buildings. The company has been responsible for more blackouts in
Ohio already this year than all of last year.
When FirstEnergy's network of transmission lines and power plants
in northern Ohio failed last Thursday — one of the first problems in
the cascade of events that resulted in the nation's largest blackout
— misgivings among elected officials and others about the company's
performance turned into wider and more fundamental questioning of
its conduct as one of the major players in the nation's deregulated,
physically vulnerable energy market.
FirstEnergy contends that its run of recent problems is not the
result of a systemic management failure or inadequate investment in
its power system, and some industry monitors assert that the
company's performance is by and large no better or worse than other
FirstEnergy has failed, it said, to meet national standards for
safe operations in very few categories.
And the federal officials investigating the blackout have been
explicit in cautioning against assuming who, if anyone, was to
blame, and emphasizing that it will be weeks before they sort out
what exactly accounted for the failure of any part of the
FirstEnergy, based in Akron, is no Enron, the once high-flying Texas energy
merchant that sold its power plants at the dawn of energy
deregulation to focus on buying and selling power. Formed in 1997 by
the merger of two Ohio utilities, FirstEnergy kept its smokestacks
and power lines. But the company is in many ways emblematic of how
traditional utilities have tried to adapt to the freewheeling ways
It has become aggressive about expansion, but a number of its
senior managers stepped down or were reassigned while the company
was under fire. It, like similar energy companies, has invested ever
larger amounts on lobbying and political campaigns, pouring money
into local and national politics and earning victories on rates and
And, documents indicate, FirstEnergy has made what many experts
and elected officials regard as less than impressive efforts at
spending on the things that they say the nation's electricity grid
needs most: upgrading its transmission system. In the three years
since deregulation legislation passed in Ohio, its spending on
maintaining its high-voltage transmission lines in Ohio has remained
all but flat.
The decision not to increase such spending came as industry
groups and government regulators were warning that the grid system
in the Midwest, including FirstEnergy's territory, could become a
choke point in a summer power surge.
FirstEnergy has insisted it was an accidental player in the
blackout, that the problem began elsewhere. But many experts say the
problems at FirstEnergy are indicative of broader issues affecting
many power companies as competitive pressures have increased the
drive for profits, and the role of government to police the
operation of the nation's power grid is extremely limited.