On this day in 2003, the Northeast of the United States and Canada experienced a massive blackout, which affected 50 million people. Initially concerned that it could be a terrorist attack, it soon became clear that it was the failure of Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corporation to maintain its portion of the electrical grid.
In a statement following the costly blackout the Utility Workers Union of America called on Ohio’s Public Utilities Commission to investigate the industry’s maintenance practices and urged the state legislature to revise its deregulation laws that led to lax standards and mass layoffs of line workers.
“Deregulated utilities are taking a ‘run it until it breaks’ approach to critical wires, poles, transformers, and substations,” UWUA National President Donald Wightman said in a statement. “Meanwhile the workforce has been slashed to the bone and replacement parts are not being kept in supply.”
Bob Fronek, president of Cleveland’s UWUA Local 270, said, “Utility companies slashed their workforces by 35 percent or more between 1990 and 1998 as they ramped up for deregulation. We have fewer line workers today, and the system disrepair is clearly showing.”
Since that largest blackout in U.S. history, union utility experts say that outdated infrastructure endangers reliable and affordable power system. But the myriad of private utility companies and agencies make it difficult to coordinate an upgrade.
In a statement marking the 10th anniversary of the blackout, the White House reasserted its call for upgrading the power grid. In 2011, the president issued a “Policy Framework for the 21st Century Grid” based on investing in smart grid technologies. And after Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast in 2012, President Obama linked upgrading the electric grid to climate action and the promotion of clean energy.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has called for $3.6 trillion dollars in infrastructure investment over the next seven years to improve the quality of the country’s power grids, waterways, roads, bridges, schools and sewage systems currently graded by the group at a “D+.” The far right tea party in Congress refuses to allocate any money for such investments.
Photo: This photo was taken from a rooftop in Ottawa, Canada, during the Great Blackout of 2003. (Jody McIntyre)