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Pulling the plug on Con Ed? Officials seek accountability after Brooklyn blackout

July 22, 2019 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
Con Edison work to restore power after Sunday night's outages. Photo courtesy of Con Edison via Facebook
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As 14,000 Brooklyn households continue to grapple with widespread power outages, elected officials are demanding more oversight of electricity provider Con Edison — including state and local investigations, hearings, legislation and even a proposal for government-run power delivery.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed the Public Service Commission on Sunday evening to investigate service issues in Brooklyn after Con Edison preemptively severed power to 33,000 households. The commission is the state’s regulatory arm providing oversight of utility companies. Cuomo’s order expands the commission’s ongoing investigation into the July 13 blackout in Manhattan.

“We have been through this situation with Con Ed time and again, and they should have been better prepared — period,” Cuomo said in a statement. “This was not a natural disaster; there is no excuse for what has happened in Brooklyn.”

Related: Brooklynites who lost power ask Con Edison: ‘Why us?’

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Con Edison said its energies are directed toward getting electricity back to residents, not the political fallout.

“Our focus right now is restoring power to all of our customers. Once we get that done, we will be happy to sit down with elected officials and discuss what happened,” Alfonso Quiroz, a spokesperson for Con Edison, told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Local lawmakers said they are unlikely to find the company’s answers satisfactory.

“I’ve met with Con Ed about some of their outages and their excuses don’t even meet the laugh test. They told me some outages are caused by balloons from kids’ parties that fly up into the air and hit the wires,” Councilmember Mark Treyger told the Eagle on Monday morning. “That just shows how delicate our power infrastructure is that a 99-cent balloon can knock out power to thousands of homes. …  It’s unacceptable.”

Treyger and Councilmember Justin Brannan, who represent southern Brooklyn communities frequently affected by blackouts, called on Wednesday for the state to intervene. If Con Edison can’t rise to the challenge, the councilmembers said, then the state should look for other service providers.

“The state gives [Con Edison] a license to operate in this city and they need to be held accountable,” Treyger said. “I want an independent report about what happened, why did this happen, were there warning signs — and I want recommendations. And one of the recommendations should include re-examining that relationship to prevent monopolies, because we’re fully at their mercy.”

Brannan said the investigation needs to go beyond Sunday night’s outage and look at the frequency of smaller outages that happen in neighborhoods like Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, which he represents in the council.

“I think we have to call them out to explain to us what’s going on with the grid. You have to give us more. You can’t just tell us a transformer exploded. You have to tell us why it exploded and what you’re doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Brannan told the Eagle. “If they can’t do that, then we have to explore other options with other utility companies.”

Cuomo suggested in an interview Monday morning on WAMC radio that pulling Con Edison’s license is an option.

“They can lose their franchise. There is a process. They are regulated by the Public Service Commission,” he said. “We have changed utilities in the past.” He pointed to the state’s role in bringing PSE&G onto Long Island as an example.

Brannan said he’s speaking with Treyger, Council Speaker Corey Johnson and other colleagues to organize City Council hearings into Con Edison service.

“Con Ed needs to face the music and explain what’s going on and if it’s a matter of infrastructure. We need to take a holistic look at why this is happening,” he said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested in a press conference this morning that one approach could be eliminating private-run utility services.

“Why are we depending on a private company for something that is so vital? We don’t depend on a private company for water or for policing or for fire protection,” de Blasio said. “If they can’t handle a job, it’s time to look at new alternatives.”

Councilmember Alan Maisel, who represents the southeast Brooklyn communities hit hardest by Sunday night’s outage, said he’s working on legislation to protect the most vulnerable residents in the case of a loss of power.

Two assisted living homes in his district lost power Sunday evening with no generators, spurring an emergency response for seniors and disabled adults who needed special care.

“The city brought in a couple of cooling buses which worked fine, but for the elderly people, some … need medicine. It was an acceptable stop-gap measure, but the owners of Sunrise [Senior Living in Mill Basin] are responsible for not providing a generator,” he said.

Maisel added that New South Shore Manor in Canarsie also lost power, leaving 76 adults living with health and developmental disabilities in the dark. The center also did not have a generator, he said.

Maisel is drafting legislation that would require any facility that is a residence for seniors and vulnerable populations to have generators or other backup power generation.

He’s also looking forward to City Council hearings into Con Ed service, but said any real changes will come through the Governor’s Office and the state’s Public Service Commission probe.

“The only ones who can put teeth into the findings is the governor and the [state] legislature,” he said. “A City Council investigation can be enlightening, and we should investigate at the city level, but if any action is to be taken it’s going to have to come from the governor.”

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