HALLOWELL — The state’s Public Utilities Commission will investigate Central Maine Power Co. over outage and staffing complaints raised by residents in Jackman, Caratunk and Dover-Foxcroft.

Commissioners unanimously decided to open a formal investigation during their Tuesday morning deliberations. They have also agreed to combine three 10-person complaints from residents of each town into a new docket as they proceed. Both moves follow the official recommendation issued by PUC attorneys and staff members on Jan. 29.

“After reviewing Central Maine Power’s arguments why the complaints should be dismissed, I’m not convinced that Central Maine Power’s met the (legal) standard,” said Chairman Mark Vannoy. “Instead, I agree with the recommended decision that the complaints are not, quote, ‘without merit.'”

The legal standard for investigating a utility, per state law, states that the commission can only dismiss a complaint if it “is satisfied that the utility has taken adequate steps to remove the cause of the complaint or that the complaint is without merit.”

A procedural order outlining the next steps in the process will be released in the coming days. A public hearing will also be scheduled shortly.

Residents in the three rural towns in Somerset and Piscataquis counties have made several claims against CMP, including that the frequency and duration of power outages has increased over the last five years and that staffing levels, service and equipment has been insufficient and is putting their communities in danger. Jackman has a population of 860, Caratunk has a population of 105 and Dover-Foxcroft has a population of 4,075. The towns submitted their complaints within weeks of each other, from November to December 2018.

At the end of December, the utility asked the commission to dismiss all of the cases, claiming that it had sufficiently addressed the concerns raised.

On Tuesday, Commissioner R. Bruce Williamson outlined three particular reasons he felt unable to do that.

During deliberations in Hallowell on Tuesday morning, Public Utilities Commissioners (from left) R. Bruce Williamson, Mark Vannoy and Randall Davis discuss complaints against Central Maine Power Co. from residents of Jackman, Caratunk and Dover-Foxcroft. The officials unanimously agreed to open an investigation into the utility’s service in the Somerset and Piscataquis county towns. Morning Sentinel photo by Meg Robbins

In reviewing data submitted by CMP in response to the Dover-Foxcroft complaint, Williamson noted that “a large number” of issues identified in line inspections for the town’s Anderson Road circuit were either not addressed for over two years or not addressed at all.

“The long delay in addressing line inspection issues and the open question of whether some of those inspection issues were ever addressed needs to be examined closely,” he said, quoting the PUC staff’s recommended decision.

Williamson went on to address CMP’s outage data from Jackman, stating that  “two particular circuits in the Jackman area have indeed experienced a large number of outages.”

According to the utility’s data, in 2009 the town experienced 15 outages with an average duration of 2.86 hours. In 2018, 33 outages were logged with an average duration of 6.35 hours. Outage duration is calculated as the time between the first customer’s report and the last customer getting power restored.

While CMP was required to submit a long-term plan for Jackman to the PUC in 1995, following a separate commission investigation, residents questioned its present-day efficacy and called it a “complete failure.”

“Regardless of whether CMP is in compliance with the long-term plan that had been established … the frequency and duration of outages in the Jackman area does indeed raise questions about the adequacy of the company’s service to the area,” Williamson said, also highlighting a portion of the PUC staff’s recommended decision.

He later supported their suggestion that “a review and determination of whether CMP remains in compliance with a long-term plan … and whether that plan should be modified or updated” be included in the commission’s upcoming investigation.

The last issue Williamson specifically cited on Tuesday was the staffing levels in Jackman, which also serves Caratunk. CMP has maintained that it had two positions for the territory from 2014 to 2018, a claim that both Darien Sawyer, who filed the Jackman complaint, and Elizabeth Caruso, who chairs Caratunk’s select board, have refuted. CMP later admitted that there was a nine-month vacancy in one of those positions from September 2017 to June 2019.

“It is most unclear why the position was open for such a long period of time and over the course of the winter season, in which electric customers are particularly vulnerable to power outages and their effects,” Williamson said, again partially quoting the PUC staff’s recommended decision. “The Caratunk area is served by the Jackman personnel, so this data point raises serious questions for service to both towns.”

Vannoy said that while no data should be treated as entirely true before the state watchdog agency has confirmed it, the preliminary information provides grounds upon which the commission must act.

“I do emphasize at this point that I make no judgment with respect to the outcome of the investigation,” he said. “At this stage, I’m simply saying that the bar to open investigation has been met.”

 

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins

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