March Bussanich photo
L to R: U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal (March Bussanich photo)

Top-ranking Connecticut officials are angry over Con Edison’s refusal to take responsibility for the September outage that left tens of thousands of New Haven-line commuters scrambling to find other transportation for 12 days.

During a Senate field hearing Monday at Bridgeport City Hall, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy asked Con Edison President Craig Ivey whether the New York-based utility would reimburse customers inconvenienced by the failure of the 36-year-old feeder cable that crippled the New Haven line Sept. 25. Ivey said it would be unfair to Con Edison’s customers to provide compensation because one customer — Metro-North — made a decision with unforeseen consequences.

Ivey said Metro-North asked Con Edison on Sept. 13 to remove from service one of the two high-voltage cables feeding the Mount Vernon, N.Y. station so that Metro-North could perform mechanical upgrades. On Sept. 25, the remaining line failed. On Monday, Ivey said the line was installed in 1976. Blumenthal responded that the line was only designed for 30 years of service, and was thus six years past its design life.

Ivey said that Con Edison takes transmission lines out of service without issue on a regular basis about 20 times a year without incident, and that he did not believe the 36-year-old cable was to blame for the failure. The transmission lines are housed inside pipes filled with oil for insulation, and crews are required to freeze the oil in order to shut down a line.

Ivey said that procedure appears likely to have contributed to the power failure, but that he planned to wait for the results of a “forensic” investigation of the line’s failure before making any judgment.

Regardless of the cause, Ivey said “we as a utility don’t believe that our customers should bear the risks when one customer decides to take a piece of equipment out of service.”

That response was unsatisfactory for both Blumenthal and Murphy, as well as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and state Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican from Wilton who is a ranking member on the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee and a gubernatorial hopeful for 2014.

During Monday’s hearing, Blumenthal challenged Ivey’s assumptions.

“I believe and a rational person would conclude that the fact this cable was six years beyond normal design life was a contributing factor, if not the cause, of perhaps its deteriorating and ultimately [its failure,]” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal then questioned Ivey on why he appeared to be dismissing the cable’s age as irrelevant.

“Our experience has indicated that age is not the factor, but it’s mechanical and thermal loading of these feeders that contributes to failure,” Ivey said. “We have never seen this particular failure. Our employees were following documented, time-tested procedures. We want to learn what happened by going through the forensic evidence.”

Blumenthal insisted that Con Edison should be responsible for compensation regardless of whether the failure was linked to the age of the cable or the procedures related to taking a line out of service.

“My own view is that there is an ethical, if not legal, obligation, for ConEd to make whole and to compensate Metro-North and others who suffered as a result of ConEd’s failure of equipment,” Blumenthal said.

After the hearing, Blumenthal expressed outrage that there was no contingency plan in place in the event a cable feeder outage.

“I am absolutely astonished at the inept, non-existent planning, lack of backup, inadequate management, insufficient funding and preparing for this kind of breakdown in service,” Blumenthal said. “The damage done to the feeder cable, while perhaps unusual, could have been anticipated and should have been planned for in some way. This breakdown is the responsibility of ConEd and Metro-North and, in my view, ConEd bears a major, if not predominant share, of that responsibility.”

Murphy asked the panel — which also included representatives from Metro-North, the state Department of Transportation, and the American Society of Civil Engineers — about how they will fund the necessary changes to avoid future outages on the busy New Haven line. 

Metro-North President Howard Permut said he believes the determination of funding is a discussion for Congress. But Murphy challenged Permut and said transportation agencies like his should be vocal advocates for transportation investments.

“I respectfully disagree with you because I think the stakes are so great here that you and your organization know the infrastructure better than anyone and should have a seat at the table and proposing solutions,” Murphy said.

Following the hearing, Murphy said the good news for Connecticut commuters is that the state is building two new substations that will provide additional redundancy on the electrical grid. But he said he also is concerned about the state of the New Haven line on the New York side of the tracks.

“You heard today that there’s no commitment as to when Metro-North is going to make the same improvements in New York,” Murphy said. “What we know now is even if Connecticut does the right thing, an aging infrastructure in New York still costs our state millions and millions of dollars. We need to get a lot more specificity from Metro-North and ConEd as to what are their contingency plans to build a redundant electrical system in New York. Those answers certainly weren’t sufficient today.”

Boucher, whose constituents include many commuters who depend upon the line, released a statement shortly after Monday’s hearing.

“It has been widely reported that ConEd refused to set up a secondary back-up system knowing full well a traditional back-up energy source was off-line for maintenance,” Boucher said. “It is unfortunate that ConEd officials think giving credits to commuters is ‘unfair.’ What is truly unfair is that customers were disrupted for 12 days and had to find alternate means of transportation into New York City so they could work and earn a living. Their bills still had to get paid. Their lives did not stop because of the power company’s failure to plan properly . . . This money should not come out of the pockets of consumers. Instead, ConEd should take responsibility by reimbursing those who have been affected.”

Following the hearing, Gov. Malloy wrote to Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast to ask him to initiate immediate legal action against ConEd to recover the losses.

“Just as Con Edison compensated New York residents in 2006, when customers in Astoria and Long Island City were left without power for a week, Con Edison should accept responsibility for the costs imposed on commuters and on Connecticut taxpayers as a result of the recent failure” Malloy wrote.