Malloy warns he’ll lose confidence if CL&P misses goals

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy stopped short Wednesday evening of endorsing a call to fine electric utilities for slow restoration efforts, but warned his confidence in Connecticut Light & Power Co. could slip as early as Thursday morning if new goals for returning service to customers aren’t met.

Meanwhile, CL&P President Jeffrey Butler apologized for creating “confusion” and misspeaking about his company’s readiness for last weekend’s snowstorm.

And Connecticut’s chief elections official warned that if CL&P can’t meet its goal of having nearly all outages corrected by Sunday, communities might have to find some new polling places for Tuesday’s municipal elections.

“That was a pretty awesome storm,” Malloy said during his evening media briefing at the state armory in Hartford, referring to last Saturday’s Nor’easter that left more than one foot of snow on much of northern and central regions. “The last time Connecticut received this amount of snow was–never.”

Malloy was cautious not to rule out a proposal made Wednesday by two House Democratic leaders dissatisfied with CL&P’s response to date. Speaker Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden and Energy and Technology Committee Co-chairwoman Vickie O. Nardello of Prospect called for state government to set new, more detailed standards for mass outage response, regular reviews, and fines that could reach into the millions of dollars for utilities in noncompliance.

But the governor, who this week directed a panel studying response efforts after Tropical Storm Irene to review the latest event as well, said he wouldn’t rush to judgment.

“If their reports speak to that issue,” Malloy said, referring to tougher readiness standards and potential fines for noncompliance, “we’ll act on it.”

CL&P, which serves more than 1.2 million residential and commercial customers–about 80 percent of Connecticut’s customer base–reported more than 511,000 outages still be corrected as of 7 p.m., Wednesday.

Butler’s company has taken considerable criticism, including from Malloy, after acknowledging earlier this week that it has struggled to draw sufficient private contractor repair crews–which constitute the bulk of its work force in major outage events–to Connecticut in swift fashion.

The CL&P executive apologized Wednesday evening after some media outlets reported that he showed surprise that a powerful storm hit Connecticut on Saturday.

“I misspoke,” Butler said. “To be very honest with you, the days have begun to run together.”

CL&P had been tracking the snow storm for several days before it struck Connecticut and was convinced last Friday that it would cause major damage. “We were expecting significant snow,” he said, adding nonetheless that it came in “faster and heavier than expected.”

Butler added that “I certainly apologize for the confusion I created.”

Utility officials have said that unlike Irene, the Aug. 27-28 tempest that caused more than 765,000 outages statewide, this latest storm damaged 13 critical CL&P transmission lines that distribute power to substations–each of which in turn serves thousands of customers.

CL&P and the state’s other major electric utility, United Illuminating, together reported more than 884,000 outages in total from this latest storm. UI completed its restoration efforts, which involved about 52,000 customers, late Tuesday night.

Butler said CL&P would begin making quicker progress now that the bulk of work to the damaged transmission lines has been completed, and predicted that outstanding outages would be down to 425,000 by Thursday morning. He also stuck to his projection that all outages would be resolved by the end of Sunday.

Malloy made it clear he will closely watch both deadlines. “If they would fail to do that, obviously it would cause me to lose more confidence.”

Meanwhile, Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill announced Wednesday that her office has been reaching out to more than 150 communities to ensure that required polling precincts will be open for next Tuesday’s municipal elections.

Though such planning normally is resolved months in advance of Election Day, some polling places still lack electrical power.

In addition, communities have opened more than 110 shelters and warming centers to assist residents without electricity. But some of those facilities are the same senior centers, fire stations and other municipal buildings used as polling places.

“The shortages of electricity and difficulties with communication and mobility are challenging local election administrators like never before as they prepare for the polls to open next Tuesday,” Merrill said.

Communities can use public facilities both as a shelter and as a polling place, provided they are designed to keep election operations secure and separate. Local registrars of voters also can designate a new polling place in the event of an emergency, but adequate notice must be given to the general public.

“We have seen extraordinary generosity with towns that have power offering to help neighboring communities in need with election preparation,” Merrill added. “The integrity of our elections is paramount, yet this is an extraordinary situation.”

“The governor strongly believes that the right to vote should not be curtailed by this storm and he is working closely with the secretary of the state to ensure people can get out to the polls next week,” Malloy’s office added late Wednesday. “It is too early to make a call yet, but both he and the secretary are working with CL&P to identify which polling places are currently without power–or doing double-duty as warming stations or shelters–and may need to be relocated.”