Demands grow for state investigation into PSEG's storm performance

Mark Harrington for Newsday

August 05, 2020

Originally published in Newsday on August 05, 2020.

State and local officials pounced on PSEG Long Island Wednesday, demanding state probes into the utility's communication failures the day before when Tropical Storm Isaias knocked out power to more than a third of its customers.

From Albany to Hempstead, officials expressed outrage and demanded answers to the widespread inability of PSEG customers to get through to the company to report outages and receive estimated restoration times. PSEG has spent hundreds of millions of ratepayer dollars improving outage management, automated communications and smart meters intended to limit outages and improve customer response. 

Hempstead Supervisor Don Clavin on Tuesday night called on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to "look into this and find out where they dropped the ball.” By midday Wednesday, Cuomo had requested that the state Department of Public Service conduct a broader investigation into all utilities' response to the storm, including PSEG. 

"We know that severe weather is our new reality and the reckless disregard by utility companies to adequately plan for tropical storm Isaias left tens of thousands of customers in the dark, literally and figuratively,” Cuomo said in a statement. “Their performance was unacceptable.”

He cited the “large volume of outages and the utilities’ failure to communicate with customers” as proof they “did not live up to their legal obligations.”

“The fact that many customers still do not know when their power will be restored makes it even more unacceptable,” Cuomo said.

PSEG Long Island is not regulated by the state Public Service Commission. The Department of Public Service, the commission's administrative arm, has only “review and recommend” oversight of LIPA.

Cuomo’s call for an investigation includes probes into PSEG, Verizon, Con Edison, Central Hudson Gas & Electric and others.

Earlier Wednesday, state Sen. Anna Kaplan joined Sens. Todd Kaminsky, Jim Gaughran and Kevin Thomas in calling for Attorney General Letitia James to investigate PSEG’s response. Kaplan (D-Great Neck) said constituents have called her office continually since the outages began Tuesday to express their frustration with PSEG’s reporting system. One 59-year-old man was “literally crying” after trying for hours to reach the company, she said.

“The big frustration is they are not able to reach PSEG,” said Kaplan, after a news conference with the other legislators outside the utility's Melville call center. “But PSEG actually sent emails to people telling people their bill is due tomorrow, and they should pay it and make sure it goes through.”

Kaplan said she received such a notice

"Why wasn’t the utility prepared?" asked Kaminsky (D-Long Beach). "Why did it not [anticipate] this level of volume would occur?" 

PSEG Long Island president Dan Eichhorn told Newsday Tuesday night that capacity issues affected the company’s computer systems and telecom lines, some handled by outside vendors, including Verizon. 

At a news conference Wednesday, Eichhorn said communications had improved but are still not adequate, and the company will work to improve it through the week.

A Verizon spokesman said: "As customer issues have arisen, we’ve been working around the clock to resolve them and have deployed portable network assets in areas where coverage and capacity have been impacted by commercial power outages."

Eichhorn said systems were expected to be back up Wednesday but full restoration could take up to a week.

“It’s unacceptable,” Clavin said. “What lessons did they take from the last superstorm?”

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, in a letter to PSEG officials, said she was “deeply concerned” by the utility's “widespread communication failures” following the storm, and called on the company’s executives to “plan for a post-recovery review” of communication protocols and devise new backup plans.

Gaughran (D-Northport), whose constituency covers other areas hard-hit by the storm, including Huntington, where transmission wires and substations were damaged, called PSEG’s storm response “disgraceful.”

“I’m outraged that PSEG dropped the ball on tonight’s storm response,” he said in a statement Tuesday night. “PSEG’s website, text, and phone lines are down. I tried them for myself following desperate constituent calls for help. I now have constituents stuck — amid a pandemic and the summer heat — literally in the dark.”

Gaughran pointed out that the storm could have been much worse.

“This was a tropical storm,” he said. “What happens if a level-2 hurricane hits Long Island? Tonight was PSEG’s first major test since they took over running our system — and they unequivocally failed.”

PSEG spokeswoman Ashley Chauvin said: “The storm affected communications systems, creating challenges in getting information to our customers.”

PSEG relies on Verizon for its internet and telecommunications systems, Chauvin said.

"Without reliable support from Verizon," she said, "our systems cannot perform as they should.”