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What Went Wrong?

Residents still losing power; investigations underway.

He’s starting to get used to it. Potomac resident Juan del Castillo lost power in a windstorm last week, after Hurricane Isabel, and many other times over the past few months.

He, and many other residents, blame Pepco for failing to maintain power lines and trimming trees and overhanging limbs.

“It’s what I would call a dangerous situation,” del Castillo said.

He suspects that Pepco is hiding behind environmental concerns to deflect their responsibility. “I think they’re using the environmentalists as sort of straw men,” del Castillo said.

TREES MAY BE one source of problems, Pepco acknowledged this week.

On Oct. 20, Pepco provided a report to Maryland’s Public Service Commission and to the District of Columbia.

“It still behooves the Company to examine any possible correlation and work with District of Columbia, city, state, county and local agencies to establish methods and cycles that can minimize tree events,” states Pepco's report.

Some help may be on the way from the County. The County is ramping up its tree trimming and tree removal services, said Ken Hartman, spokesperson for County Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1).

“We used to have a year-and-a-half wait to have a tree removed,” Hartman said.

Denis had considered a supplemental appropriation to the County budget specifically for tree trimming. Now, he will wait to assess what the costs of the increased activity will be before introducing such a motion, Hartman said.

“THERE ARE STILL lessons that Pepco can learn and leverage to improve its performance in the future,” states Pepco's report.

A more systemic investigation into Pepco’s business practices is also underway.

“The State Public Service Commission started a consolidated investigation,” Hartman said.

The investigation may resemble the 1999 investigation conducted into Pepco after that year’s winter storms. “In 1999 it took a full 12 months,” Hartman said. The Commission’s investigation could result in major changes to the utility. “It can order [Pepco] to change their practices,” Hartman said.

The investigation will involve looking at Pepco’s records and internal documents. “It’s almost like a judicial proceeding,” Hartman said.

He hopes that the result of this investigation will effect greater changes than the 1999 investigation. “We need to make sure there’s teeth this time around,” Hartman said.

PEPCO IS ALSO conducting an investigation of itself. According to the report, Pepco hired James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to conduct a study of its response to Hurricane Isabel. A draft of Witt’s report is due to be provided to Pepco in mid-December and will be filed with the Commission, stated Pepco’s report.

One of the main complaints people had, said Del. Jean Cryor (R-15), was that customers were told that their information was not in Pepco’s system when they called.

Cryor took part in an Oct. 21 meeting where Pepco’s president William Sim testified. She says that Sim testified that the data was in the system, but that Pepco’s representatives could not access the data.

Cryor was upset with Sim’s analysis of the situation. “They continue to say, officially, they did the best they could,” Cryor said.

She does not think that better training of personnel is the answer, which is what she believes Sim’s solution to be. “We’re not looking for a better bedside manner,” Cryor said.

She also thinks that Pepco is trying to lower the amount of responsibility it takes. “It seems to me that Pepco is saying, ‘We can only go so far,’” Cryor said. “It certainly is not going to be any relief to the people who have been calling me on the phone,” she said.

Cryor was incensed that Pepco would shift the burden of storm preparedness onto residents. “It is absolutely unacceptable.”