AUGUSTA — To some, the memories of the December 2008 ice storm are fading, but for Central Maine Power Co. they are turning into a nightmare.
The storm caused trees to collapse on power lines in a wide swath through the CMP service area, leaving more than 100,000 customers without electricity at the height of the storm. In some areas it took several days to restore power.
Two of the three members of the Public Utilities Commission have found the utility did not do all it could or should have done to prevent damage to power lines, so ratepayers will not have to pick up the entire $11 million tab to restore service.
“Vegetation management had something to do with the storm damage they incurred during that storm of December 2008,” Commissioner Jack Cashman said during the deliberations on the case last month. “Vegetation management” is the term used to describe efforts to manage the growth of trees and shrubs along the power line rights of way.
“I am not sure how much more they should have done, but it should have been more than they did,” Cashman said.
Cashman said an independent study done for the commission indicated that some of the power outages and the duration of some of the outages could have been lessened if CMP had done more trimming of tree limbs and removed some trees.
Commissioner Vandean Vafiades agreed that the utility could have done a better job at preventing damage to the power distribution system.
“I didn’t say it would have eliminated it, nor do I think that any amount of tree trimming from CMP would have eliminated the damage from the storm,” she said. “I do believe that tree trimming, the poor management, the prior management of the vegetation did affect whether the storm resulted [in] the limbs [coming] down. It did have an impact.”
She and Cashman agreed CMP should have to pay for part of the cost of the cleanup and repair, despite a 2009 agreement concerning review of such costs. They said language concerning a “prudency review” of CMP’s actions to address a 2007 finding the company was not doing enough tree trimming allowed the commission to address that specific area.
But the two differed on how much should be apportioned to CMP and how much to the ratepayers.
“I don’t believe they provided the sufficient evidence about this particular storm and how it affected their service area in the opportunity we gave them in the hearing,” Vafiades said. “I believe CMP should bear some of the risk.”
CMP, in the filings with the PUC, argued it should be able to recover all of the costs from the ratepayers. Cashman disagreed and pointed to the PUC hearing examiner’s report, which suggested a percentage based on a computation of the actual amount of trimming that had been completed over the five years before the storm and what should have been trimmed.
“This has been a difficult decision to wrestle with,” he said. “I think the calculation in the examiner’s report is frankly the best we can do at arriving at a percentage.”
Because of that difficulty, and her different interpretation of the facts before the commission, PUC chairwoman Sharon Riehaus voted against assessing any of the costs to CMP and would have had the ratepayers pay the entire cost.
“I couldn’t get to a place that told me that the amount of money they spent on that storm was directly related to their poor vegetation management practices in the past,” she said.
Riehaus said she was not comfortable that the facts the presented during the hearing process supported a conclusion that CMP had not done enough trimming.
Cashman and Vafiades decided the “fair” apportionment would be for ratepayers to pay for 70 percent of the restoration costs, with CMP paying for the remainder.
CMP spokesman John Carroll declined to comment on the commission’s action because the written order in the case has not been completed. CMP could appeal the decision in court.