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Utility officials discuss derecho

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the aftermath of the June 29 derecho, thieves stole 20 backup generators from Frontier Communications. Now a company executive wants to see harsher penalties for such crimes committed during a state of emergency.

"I think the generator thefts were thefts of opportunity," said Dana Waldo, Frontier's senior vice president and general manager for West Virginia.

He didn't know if the people who stole the generators from remote sites took them to use or to sell.

Waldo said Monday that he wants to see legislation introduced that would impose harsher penalties on crimes like generator theft during a state of emergency.

Eleven people were arrested and charged with theft in connection with the backup generators. Five of the generators were recovered.

Waldo's comments came at a public hearing held by the state Public Service Commission Monday morning. The PSC is assessing how well utility companies responded during the June 29 derecho and subsequent storms.

Frontier, which provides landline telephone service, lost power to half of its 230 wire centers after the storm, Waldo said. The company provided power through generators and batteries in those areas, he said. The storm affected 27 of the 50 emergency 911 centers that Frontier provides service to, Waldo said.

Waldo said while service was affected to customers during and after the storm it would have been worse had the company not invested $200 million in its infrastructure.

Waldo said Frontier devoted the investment into strengthening the system's day-to-day operations, but he also believes the investment proved itself worthwhile during the storm.

Besides Frontier, the PSC heard from officials from Appalachian Power, Monongahela Power, the Black Diamond Power Co. and West Virginia American Water.

The derecho was the single-most devastating weather event in the history of Appalachian Power, said Phillip Wright, vice president of distribution for AEP.

More than half a million state residents lost power as a result of the storm. Some remained without power for nearly two weeks later.

The storm, which originated in Illinois and Indiana, was 100 miles wide when it reached West Virginia, Wright said.

APCO meteorologists were predicting a thunderstorm, but didn't know it would be so severe, Wright said. 

APCO brought in an additional 3,500 workers to help with repairs and had trouble finding places to lodge them all, Wright said. Hotels were filling up because of the Greenbrier Classic and other events, he said. Workers stayed in dormitories at the University of Charleston, West Virginia State University and Concord University, Wright said.

From now on, when need be the company will seek out "mom and pop" hotels and others to house the workers, he said.

The company is still assessing the cost of the derecho and the current estimate is $62 million, Wright said.

Wright addressed complaints from people who said they saw out-of-state workers sitting in trucks with nothing to do. He attributed the downtime to necessary preparations that need to be done before workers can get to work on lines.

Workers in some cases had to wait up to an hour for the prep work to be done, he said. Other workers were awaiting assignments and for direction from a circuit coordinator with the company, Wright said.

Four FirstEnergy transmission towers collapsed during the bad weather, said James Haney, vice president of operations with the company. Mon Power and Potomac Edison companies are part of FirstEnergy, which purchased Allegheny Power.

The towers were all built in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Haney said. Standards for building transmission towers have changed since then, he said.

Officials from both FirstEnergy and APCO said they have considered the use of drones to assess damage after storms.

Still, Haney added that the company is not seriously considering them because of licensing issues with the Federal Aviation Administration. Drones would be much cheaper than helicopters "if they can get them to work," Haney said.

Two linemen for Black Diamond Power Company were injured while making repairs and were unable to return to work, said company President David Musser.

In separate incidents, one fell from a pole and another was thrown 50 feet, he said. Both workers are recovering.

Musser said the company is looking into hiring contractors to help with repairs during future storms. This time, the company used its own workers alone for repairs, he said.

West Virginia American Water helped restore water service to several remote sites that lost water because the electric was out, company President Jeff McIntyre said. The company usually has 28 generators on hand, but brought in more after the storm to help restore water service to communities.

The company used 52 generators throughout its entire system, McIntyre said.

One generator that powered the treatment plant in the New River Gorge area suffered a "catastrophic failure," he said. Repairs to the generator cost the company $30,000, he said. Total cost of storm damage for the water company totaled about $750,000, he said.

West Virginia American also had one of its generators stolen after the storm, McIntyre said. The generator weighed 400 pounds and was chained to a telephone pole, he said. Another generator was damaged and officials suspect it was because the perpetrator didn't like having to hear it run during the night, McIntyre said.

On July 11, the company had restored water to all its customers, McIntyre said.

The company used social media to rebut false rumors that it planned to turn off water to whole communities, McIntyre said.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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