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Multimillion $ losses

Regulators plan PEPCO hearing

(Published June 18, 2001)


Staff Writer

The chairman of the D.C. Public Service Commission (PSC) says the regulatory agency plans to convene a public hearing soon to ensure that Potomac Electric Power Co. officials move expeditiously "to make sure power is safely provided to the community."

PSC Chairman Angel M. Cartagena Jr., in a telephone interview June 15, expressed concern at the lack of urgency with which PEPCO has addressed the frequently violent disruptions of power that have occurred primarily in sections of Georgetown since February 2000.

"Up until the past couple of days, no one involved in that project has had the same sense of urgency that we’ve had," Cartagena said. "That last explosion got everybody’s attention."

"That last explosion" to which the PSC chairman referred included back-to-back underground fires that began June 13, with the second one breaking out as PEPCO workers were attempting to bring power back online to about 1,600 residential and business customers in Georgetown who were left sweltering on one of the year’s hottest days. PEPCO said 1,200 to 1,600 customers were without power for most of four consecutive days as a result of the latest incidents.

While many residents of one of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods tried to make the best of the situation, with some even choosing to leave their homes for hotels, hundreds of Georgetown businesses were unable to operate without power and the commercial corridor’s many restaurants lost thousands of dollars worth of perishable food that, without refrigeration, had to be discarded.

Karyn Good, executive director of the Georgetown Business and Professional Association, estimated on June 15 – before power had been restored – that business losses would total $3 million to $4 million. Good noted that restaurants would remain crippled throughout the weekend, even if power was restored, because most would be unable to replace their spoiled inventories before Monday.

"At first, I think people were angry and frustrated, but, at this point, I think they’ve accepted it, because they see it’s very serious and it has to be fixed for the safety of the people who live and work and visit [in] Georgetown," Good said.

"You can’t get angry at PEPCO," she said. "It’s not like PEPCO said, ‘Let’s shut down business in Georgetown for four days.’"

Columbia Hospital for Women and four major hotels all were among businesses that lost power for some portion of the four-day outage. Major traffic disruptions also occurred, with M Street NW closed almost continuously from 25th Street to Wisconsin Avenue while repairs were in progress. Some traffic was permitted to flow during rush hours.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, D.C. City Council Chairman Linda Cropp and Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans took a walking tour of the affected eastern section of Georgetown on June 14, chatting with business owners and managers and observing some of the repair work in progress.

The mayor has initiated steps to try to qualify affected businesses for emergency low-interest federally insured loans to help with their recovery. It was unclear to many business owners at press time to what extent their insurance or PEPCO might cover their losses.

PEPCO Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John M. Derrick Jr. issued a letter to Georgetown residents and businesses June 15, apologizing for the disruptions and inviting them to contact the company’s claims department "if you believe you have suffered a loss due to a recent outage." PEPCO also offered thousands of pounds of dry ice, which it had delivered to 28th and M streets NW, to the affected community.

PEPCO announced May 22 that it would undertake a complete rewiring of its underground distribution system in Georgetown. The announcement came one week after the Public Service Commission hired the engineering consulting firm of Stone and Webster "to independently investigate the state of PEPCO’s local distribution system."

The PSC’s Cartagena said a report from the consultants is expected soon and that the three-member PSC "will have our consultants looking over PEPCO’s shoulder" through every step of the repair process.

Cartagena, aides to Councilman Evans and Jill Frick, executive director of the Georgetown Partnership business improvement district, said efforts to coordinate other utility work and a planned "streetscape" beautification project in Georgetown with PEPCO’s repairs have caused delays in getting the work started.

Cartagena said he doubts that PEPCO could begin the permanent repairs sooner than 45 to 60 days from now even if officials moved "aggressively" due to the coordination of activities aimed at limiting the disruption caused by the need to dig up the historic area’s streets.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator