Unions say utilities put profits before customers in Irene response

Union representing electric and phone utility repair crews charged Monday that profit-driven cutbacks significantly hampered the response to Tropical Storm Irene in the week following the Aug. 27-28 tempest.

And as state legislators concluded their two-part hearing on the Irene response, they also heard a wide array of ideas for improving Connecticut’s readiness for future storms, including a launching statewide assault on invasive vine species to hiring retired local repairmen to help out-of-state emergency crews find their way.

“Money is clearly a motivator,” Frank Cirillo, business manager for Local 420 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, told a panel comprising members of four legislative committees.

Cirillo, whose local represents line crews assigned to the western half of the state by Connecticut Light & Power Co., said the company’s decision to limit emergency crews to no more than 16 hours of work per day was designed to control costs more than to promote safety.

“When our people are exhausted, they’ll say they want to go home,” Cirillio said, adding that many workers would have been comfortable, over the short-term working a few extra hours per day. Even adding two hours to a shift could have accelerated restorations in some cases by several hundred customers per day, he said.

CL&P officials have said the 16-hour per day limit is intended to prevent fatigue-related injuries, Cirillio testified that of 37 fatalities suffered by Connecticut electrical crew members since 1950, only one was fatigue-related.

He also told lawmakers that while his local represented 435 line mechanics in 1975, by 2007 that number had plunged to 190 as CL&P began to rely more heavily on private contractors.

Both Cirillo and the president of a union representing telephone line repair crews charged the utilities their members work for with poorly coordinating work crews, often leaving them waiting on a job site for hours without providing authorization to start work.

“At AT&T, ‘cheap is better,’ is the attitude,” testified William Henderson, president of Local 1298 of the Communications Workers of America.

Henderson said job losses over time have left the utility with a “bare bones operation” for repairs. Storm damage assessment was inadequate and in some cases crews brought the wrong size poles to replace downed units.

Equipment assigned to repair crews at times was outdated or otherwise inadequate for the job, according to Henderson. “AT&T did their usual dog and pony show — look good no matter how poor the service is,” he testified.

Leaders of some cities and towns complained during the first public hearing on Sept. 19 that electric line repair crews assigned to their communities would, on occasion, arrive, sit for hours, and then leave inexplicably without doing any work.

“They don’t take matters into their own hands,” Cirillo said Monday. “If they’re told to leave, they leave.”

Richard E. Sobolewski, supervisor of technical analysis for the state Office of Consumer Counsel, testified that over the past five years CL&P has dedicated appropriate funds for repair work as spelled out in their rate agreements with the state.

“With a few peaks and valleys we think they’ve done a good job in maintaining their employees in those areas,” he said.

CL&P spokesman Mitch Gross called Cirillo’s argument that restoration work could have been safely accelerated with shifts beyond 16 hours “purely speculative.”

“The policy is very simple and it’s all about safety,” Gross said. “You work your shift, you take an eight-hour break. These are people who are very well compensated for doing very dangerous work, sometimes in horrible conditions. When you are fatigued, you might make a mistake.”

“We’re proud of the work our employees performed in very difficult circumstances,” AT&T spokesman Chuck Coursey said Monday. “We’ve also learned valuable lessons from the storm’s aftermath and are working with our employees and local community stakeholders to determine how we can use this experience to be even better prepared for future storms.”

Rep. Vickie Nardello, D-Prospect, co-chairwoman of the Energy and Technology Committee, has questioned whether utilities have cut back in funding for tree trimming and other maintenance. She asked the unions to make specific proposals to upgrade these operations and submit them to the legislature for the 2012 regular session.

“The real work begins after this hearing,” said Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, the Energy and Technology panel’s other co-chairman, who said he expects utilities, municipalities and others to work with lawmakers to draft reform legislation.

Fonfara said he personally believes “more tree trimming has to be done, and more effective tree-trimming.” His comments were echoed by Joseph Mingo of East Lyme, who testified during the hearing segment reserved for the public.

Mingo, who is a municipal tree warden in his southeastern Connecticut community, said he believes the growth of Asian bittersweet and other vines not native to this state have overburdened tree branches and may have magnified tree damage during Irene by as much as 50 percent.

“The state should open its eyes,” he said. “We have to do something to mitigate these invasive species.”

The safest way to fight the proliferation of these vines is not through herbicides, but rather through cutting and trimming, which means a statewide public works project. It’s going to take money from the state,” he added, though he didn’t estimate how much it might cost. “Otherwise it’s going to be deja-vu all over again.”

Nick Coscia, 73, a retired electrician and line repair crewman with 35 years of experience, said the response could have been much more effective had private electric line crews brought in from out of state–which represented the bulk of the response–been better prepared to navigate around Connecticut.

“We need more qualified and trained people who know the state,” Coscia said, adding local workers who know the system and the topography can assess problems and identify their sources far more quickly than workers from outside of the region.

Old Lyme First Selectman Tim Griswold told lawmakers his community and others near the nuclear power station at Millstone Point in Waterford had a tremendous advantage over most other Connecticut towns, since federal law compels those near that nuclear plant to participate in regular disaster response drills.

Statewide tropical storm and hurricane preparation drills could go a long way toward helping towns solve problems that plagued many during Irene, such as identifying disabled and other high-medical-need residents who may need shelter, food, water or even to be evacuated from their homes.

“I think people are tenacious,” he said, adding it might require a significant outreach program to improve public cooperation. “They want to stay in their homes. You can’t force them out, but you can ask them.