Equipment Flaws And Weaknesses Caused Blackout In Washington Heights /inwood And Other Areas Last Summer

Attorney General Spitzer today released a report on Consolidated Edison power failures that left hundreds of thousand of area residents without electric service during last July's heat wave.

The Attorney General's 72-page report found that the weaknesses that caused last summer's problems were in Con Ed's distribution system, which is the last link between the company and the customer.

Among the report's most significant findings is that Con Ed entered last summer with electric distribution systems that had numerous defective components which were especially vulnerable to heat and power overloads.

The Attorney General's analysis also found that these problems exist throughout the company's service territory and were not unique to Washington Heights-Inwood.

"Con Edison entered last summer with a system that literally couldn't stand the heat," Spitzer said. "The company's distribution system was full of defective equipment, and when you combine that with high temperatures, we had a recipe for disaster.

"Because the company wasn't prepared for summer in the city, hundreds of thousands of individuals and businesses suffered. It's important to note that we're talking about more than just people going without lights- hospitals were affected, those in need couldn't dial 911, and seniors were stuck in high rise buildings without elevators or fans or air conditioning.

"It is incumbent on Con Ed to take steps now to ensure that history doesn't repeat itself this summer or in the future."

The largest single power failure was a July 6, 1999 blackout of the Washington Heights-Inwood neighborhood that put 200,000 people in the dark for over 18 hours. Some 50,000 Westchester residents were hit by the blackout, and residents of the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, and Long Island City were also affected.

Immediately following last summer's outages, Spitzer's Telecommunications and Energy Bureau launched an inquiry to determine the causes of the power failures and assess Con Ed's performance in remedying the problems.

Because the company reports on its repair and capital improvement programs on a borough-by-borough basis only, it is impossible to determine which specific neighborhoods or network areas served by Con Ed are most in need of equipment and service upgrades. Because of this, Spitzer is calling on the utility to change the way it details its maintenance and equipment spending.

Factors contributing to the numerous power outages included Con Ed's failure to:

  • Design its distribution system to minimize the temperatures that its equipment would be subjected to in the summer;
  • Identify and replace equipment with impaired resistance to high temperatures; and
  • Develop a means of identifying equipment likely to fail if subjected to high temperatures.

The Attorney General's report also identified deficiencies in Con Ed's communications with customers, government and the public, and with the company's compensation for customer loses caused by power outages.

Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat, who represents the Washington Heights area said, "Attorney General Spitzer's report sheds light on what has been a campaign of confusion and half truths by Con Edison. Through this report we can pinpoint areas where Con Edison must work to improve service and equipment that is antiquated and deteriorating."

Based on his findings, Spitzer is making recommendations for actions Con Ed should take to improve the reliability of its electric service, including:

  • Fully implementing an action plan the company issued January 15, 2000;
  • Redesigning the company's distribution system to minimize heat build up, especially equipment buried in underground congested areas;
  • Developing a test for detecting equipment vulnerable to heat stress;
  • Improving its crisis communications with customers, government and the public;
  • Increasing the amount it pays customers for food and perishables ruined by lack of refrigeration, and covering appliances damaged by power outages.

"No Con Edison customer should have to worry about being left in the dark this summer. I call upon Con Ed to take every necessary step to avoid a repeat of the summer of 1999." concluded Spitzer.

The report was prepared by the Attorney General's Telecommunications and Energy Bureau, Mary Ellen Burns, Bureau Chief; Charlie Donaldson, Richard Golden and Jill Ellen Sandford, Assistant Attorneys General.

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