Unitil gets an earful from residents left without power

FITCHBURG, MASSACHUSETTS - Infuriated consumers delivered hours of angry testimony, asking state officials to consider banning Unitil from doing business here and accusing the power company of failing them in its handling of a massive outage after a December ice storm.

Downed trees and power lines left thousands without electricity, some for weeks. Many residents said most infuriating was their inability to get answers from Unitil during the crisis.

Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong told officials from the Department of Public Utilities she was without power for "a mere four days."

"I say 'mere,' because there were people who were without power for more than two weeks," she said. "I can tell you right now, I am so angry."

The crowd at Memorial Middle School cheered as Fitchburg City Councilor Norman Boisvert said the community deserved better for the electricity rates it pays.

"Shame on you for letting Unitil's rates get as high as they've been," Boisvert told the commission. "Throw the bums out!"

A massive ice storm ravaged the region - and northern Worcester County in particular - on December 11, leaving thousands of residents of Fitchburg, Holden, Townsend, and nearby towns without power, and often heat. The utilities department licenses power companies that operate in the state, and many in the crowd implored the commission to revoke the company's license and ban it from doing business in the state. The hearing was the first in a series planned to address the slow restoration of utilities in the aftermath of the storm.

Hampton, N.H.-based Unitil, which supplies power to more than 28,000 homes in the Fitchburg area, issued a statement through a public relations firm, calling the ice storm "the most destructive storm the region’s electrical infrastructure has ever encountered."

Unitil senior vice president George Gantz sat in the front row at yesterday's hearing, but did not speak publicly. In its statement, the company said it had also made improvements, including faster deployment of work crews, a call center with increased capacity, and the creation of a new Emergency Information Center.

"The company's role in this evening’s proceedings is first and foremost to listen," the statement said.

It got an earful.

Residents said some elderly moved into emergency shelters set up in local schools for days and weeks. Fallen branches tangled in power lines obstructed streets for days after the storm, residents said, and when residents and public officials sought answers from company officials on Unitil hotlines, lines were jammed.

But what angered residents the most was that after weeks of sporadic communications from Unitil, many residents said they received electric bills this month that were higher than usual.

Mary Ingemi, an 84-year-old widow who lives in Fitchburg, said she lost power for a couple of days, then it was erratic. But the biggest surprise was a $1,400 bill for December. She waved the bill at the commissioners.

"I'm not going to pay it," she said causing the crowd to erupt in cheers and applause.

Michael Bursch of Fitchburg railed at Unitil, saying he was without power but paying some of the highest electricity rates in the state. Unitil officials said the company’s rates are the second highest in Massachusetts, just below the rates charged by NStar on parts of Cape Cod. Power outages are common, he said, although not always on the magnitude of December's.

"I've got a friend who lives in the middle of nowhere in Winnipeg, Canada, who gets better service," he said.

"Take their license to operate in Massachusetts away and say good-bye," he said. "Your office holds the power to make the decision and execute that decision."

Unitil Company Chief Executive Officer Robert Schoenberger has said out of state crews the company relies on to help with repairs were scarce after the December 11 ice storm.

The company must bid for them against larger power companies like NStar.

Residents of Fitchburg, along with Lunenburg and Townsend have filed a lawsuit against Unitil, accusing the company of gross negligence in its response to the storm. The company has not yet been served notice of the lawsuit, Gantz said. He said the company could not get actual meter readings at 15 percent of the homes it serves, leading it to issue "estimated bill" to some customers. Those bills were marked with an "E" next to the meter reading and customers may call the company to resolve discrepancies, Gantz said.

Residents submitted a petition to the utilities board last night signed by more than 1,500 area residents requesting them to drop Unitil. More than 4,000 people signed it on-line.

Fitchburg resident Mary Patricia Haxton waited several hours to testify before the commission, and when she did, after 10 p.m., she said her house remains without power.

"This is day 48," she said her voice cracking.

Haxton recalled pouring antifreeze into her toilet to keep it from freezing in the first days of the outage. She bought handwarmers for her aging cat. Power briefly returned on Christmas Eve, before a worker told her it would need to be shut off.

Shortly afterward, her pipes froze and burst. Her washer still sits full of water that is frozen solid, she said.

"People don't think there's an impact to Unitil's irresponsibility," she said. "They need to be held accountable."



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