Utility workers urge blackout probe

The FirstEnergy transmission line failure in Ohio that quite possibly triggered a massive blackout in the country’s Northeast earlier this month may have been caused by neglected maintenance stemming from the industry’s deregulation, the Utility Workers Union of America said last week.

The UWUA has called on the Public Utilities Commission in Ohio to investigate the electric industry’s maintenance policies and urged the Ohio Legislature to revise the state’s deregulation law, mandate more stringent inspections, and heighten maintenance standards.

“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 UWUA Local 270 in Cleveland, 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.”

Fronek was among the labor and consumer advocates who raised the alarm about the possibilities of a system meltdown when utility deregulation was being implemented in Ohio.

“The worst nightmares predicted by our consumer coalition are coming true,” he said. “The massive blackout, as bad as it was, may be just the opening chapter in the failure of the transmission grid. Ohio needs to re-regulate their electric utilities so that Ohio remains in control of the infrastructure and can mandate a preventive maintenance program that insures the reliability of the system.”