Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L) was brought under scrutiny Monday at the state Board of Public Utilities Hearing at in Manalapan. JCP&L customers from throughout the area came out to criticize the power company’s job after Hurricane Irene struck New Jersey in late August.
The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities held the hearing, with a second hearing scheduled for today in Morris Plains, to gather evidence against the company in an attempt to rectify why JCP&L allegedly performed so poorly after the hurricane.
Board of Public Utilities President Lee A. Solomon mediated the open forum, alongside BPU Commisioners Nicholas Asselta, Jeanne Fox, and Joseph Fiordaliso.
The Board is holding similar hearings in the other regulated utility territories throughout the state, including PSE&G, Atlantic City Electric, and Rockland Electric, so that the Board can hear what went right and what went wrong. After all of the public forums, the Board has the opportunity to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine what new procedures or regulatory changes need to be implemented or made, Solomon said. Presently, the Board is currently working on developing a set of standards and best practices for all utility companies throughout the state, Solomon explained. The hearings will be completed by the end of November.
Both elected officials and the public alike echoed similar sentiments about JCP&L, stating that a substandard infrastructure, inexperienced young workers, lack of communication, and a shortage of staff were the reasons why residents stayed in the dark for so long.
“JCP&L has acknowledged that communication was a huge problem, but acknowledging it and fixing it are two very different things, and frankly many of my constituents no longer have a whole lot of faith in what they are told by JCP&L,” New Jersey Assemblywoman Amy Handlin said.
One remedy for transparent communication offered by Handlin was social media; utilizing Facebook, Twitter, and sending mass e-mails and texts could be a way for JCP&L to divulge information to its customers.
While Solomon said that this is being looked into, some older residents mentioned that you cannot use the computer or internet and cannot use the telephone if a cable company runs their telephone service if the power is off.
New Jersey Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande, who represents Colts Neck and Millstone Township, said that her office fielded dozens of calls from JCP&L customers regarding the power outages. Casagrande requested the company install a communication plan which retrieves all JCP&L customers cell phone numbers and sends texts about the restoration schedule.
Holmdel Mayor Patrick Impreveduto said he was unable to contact anyone at JCP&L, and their regional representative was nowhere to be found which Impreveduto said was “quite disturbing.”
Manasquan Mayor George Dempsey also related to JCP&L’s ineffectual correspondence. Dempsey would like JCP&L to offer accurate, up-to-date information on where the outages are so that the local government can aid them in relaying the correct information to the town.
Freehold Borough Council President George Schnurr spoke about hte inaccurate information providd by JCP&L. Schnurr was told by the company that all of the power within his town had been restored, when he later discovered that was not true. Additionally, JCP&L called and told Schnurr that the power within Hudson Manor, a senior citizen community, would be restored within an hour when in fact the power had already been on for three hours in that community.
Marlboro Mayor Jonathan Hornik spoke about the frustration he endured for seven days when approximately 7,500 Marlboro residents were without power. Hornik said that he was in constant contact with his JCP&L representative who “did a fair job”, but did not supply accurate information. Hornik said he also knew areas of his town that were without power when the JCP&L representative did not.
The Marlboro mayor asked the BPU who will be held accountable for the poor performance of JCP&L and said that he thinks the President of JCP&L should be fired.
“Somebody failed and you’re hearing it from all of the residents out here in a bunch of areas, which I’ll go through and I’ll give you some specific circumstances where there’s a complete lack of coordination, complete lack of communication, complete lack of resources necessary on the ground to fix this problem. And I will tell you we had fair warning,” Hornik said.
The communication lapse was not just between JCP&L and their customers, but with the county tree-trimming companies as well. Assemblywoman Casagrande said she received calls about JCP&L trucks who were sitting in neighborhoods unable to work due to a lack of coordination with tree-trimming companies. The trees that fell on wires are not allowed to be cut down when the wires are still live, and JCP&L cannot switch off the electricity until the tree-trimmers are present.
Hornik called the communication between JCP&L and the county tree-trimming companies “a joke”. He added that he personally had to communicate with both companies to make sure they met within the township to get the job done. Hornik’s recommendation to the BPU is that JCP&L mark the power lines they have shut off so that the tree-trimmers will know which lines are no longer live so that they can handle the fallen trees.
Another topic of contention was the impolite workers at JCP&L. Assemblywoman Handlin spoke about the rude customer service representatives at JCP&L who were uninformed and dispelling false information, which many citizens evidenced later while speaking to the Board.
Victoria Gretsky, a former employee of New Jersey Natural Gas Company and resident of Middletown, was appalled at the customer service. “I’m amazed frankly, because [New Jersey Natural Gas Company] was held to such a high standard, we would never have been allowed to talk to customers the way JCP&L spoke to us. I can’t get over it,” Gretsky said.
Areas of Monmouth County that run on electricity powered well-water and sewage were also brought up at the forum. Assemblywoman Casagrande, who represents two towns that primarily use well-water, suggested that well-water towns be a factor when areas are being prioritized for restoration, since basic needs like showering or flushing toilet can't be met when the power is out.
Millstone Township resident Diane Parisi, who was without power for 4 days (including no water), had to take care of an 88 year-old elderly parent in those conditions.
Colts Neck Mayor James Schatzle spoke about the septic and well-water issue, noting that each home in the township is “like a mini-sewage plant” and therefore should have priority, like larger sewage plants do.
Two union presidents at the public forum defended the work of JCP&L, Alex Bellick the President of the System Council U-3 IBEW and Edward Stroup, President of IBEW 1289.
Bellick said that his workers (JCP&L employees are members of the IBEW System Council U-3) worked 16-hour shifts after Hurricane Irene hit. “They put their heart and soul into getting the power back,” Bellick said. “They were affected also, a lot of them live in the same communities that they work, and it was just frustrating to see the attack on my members.”
Stroup said that while communication is important it is not the most important thing. “Communication does not turn on the power, people do,” Stroup said, who explained that his workers toiled for 16-18 hour days for two weeks. Stroup went on to say that lack of staffing is the culprit for the length of the power outages, and that de-regulation, which was implemented in August of 1999 by the BPU, is when most of the staffing cuts took place and should be re-evaluated.
Investing in a capital infrastructure was another suggestion that was repeatedly raised at the open forum. Residents of older homes and new houses both experienced multiple power outages a year, whether the weather was nice or stormy.
It was also suggested by several residents that the BPU make a comparison to the quality of performance of JCP&L before and after the acquisition of the company by First Energy, suggesting that since the take-over JCP&L has become substandard.
Solomon said that the Board has the authority to enforce changes, however, since they are in the early stages of gathering evidence the Board is not allowed to comment on what types of changes will be made. If, and when, JCP&L is modified, that will be a matter of public record and it will be publicized, according to Solomon.
JCP&L has not submitted a final cost assessment, but when they do there will be a public hearing on that aspect of their rate recovery if any, Solomon said. Furthermore, if the Board discovers that “infrastructure is responsible for what went wrong, if to any extent, or that infrastructure upgrades would prevent similar problems in the future - there is a cost associated with that that will impact rate payers,” the BPU president explained.
Hornik commented that rates should not be raised for JCP&L “to do what they are supposed to do to service their customers.”
Some residents said that they should be reimbursed by JCP&L for the financial losses they suffered, including spoiled food, gasoline for generators, power cords, and damage incurred from flooded basements - where the water could have been pumped out if the electricity was on, one resident said.
Solomon said that the BPU does not have the authority to grant compensation to individuals. A legal process must be followed and there are specific laws and criteria for the awarding of damages, he explained.
“The bottom-line is JCP&L is in business to keep our power on. That is what they do, that is why they are in business,” Gretsky said. “And you know what, if they can’t do that, and they can’t function as a power company than they ought to get out of it.”