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Published: Thursday, 8/21/2003

Dingell slates inquiry, wants bill to focus on prevention

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Rep. John Dingell (D., Dearborn), the senior Democrat and ranking member of the House's Energy and Commerce Committee, said his committee will conduct a two-day hearing Sept. 3-4 in Washington to determine exactly what plunged 50 million people into darkness and how to prevent another such occurrence.

“My old daddy used to tell me that, in a crisis, you kill the closest snake first,” the colorful 25-term Democrat said.

He said an energy bill that is in a House-Senate conference committee needs to be rewritten to address the issue of electrical reliability, and that the agency that oversees the nation's power grid should be able to mandate adherence to strict service standards.

“Congress needs to deal first with the issue of reliability” in a separate piece of legislation, and leave debates over issues such as ethanol use and drilling for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge for another time. “We need to give agencies like [the North American Electric Reliability Council] mandatory, and not voluntary, responsibility for compliance to industry standards.”

Mr. Dingell made his remarks after a tour of DTE's coal-fired generating plant in Monroe. DTE is the parent company of Detroit Edison.

The congressman praised utility workers and executives for their efforts to quickly bring the 3,000-megawatt plant and others in the Detroit Edison system back on line after Thursday's blackout, restoring power to almost all of Detroit Edison's 2.1 million customers by Saturday morning.

Mr. Dingell also said that deregulating the nation's electrical services might have been a mistake.

“I've had concerns about [deregulation]. I come from the curious school that if it ain't broke, don't fix it,” Mr. Dingell said, pointing to what he called widespread reliability problems and increased costs that have resulted from deregulation of the nation's power companies, turning electricity “into a commodity” to be traded.

Asked whether he believed the source of the blackout should be held financially responsible for its implications, Mr. Dingell said it was more important now to find out what went wrong and fix it so the situation is not repeated.

“I really don't want to see finger-pointing,” Mr. Dingell said. Still, he was critical of the Bush administration and its Republican allies in Congress for killing a Democratic effort in 2001 to spend $350 million to upgrade the nation's electrical grid, and of others for indirectly causing last week's outage.

“There are a lot of people with sins on their souls,” Mr. Dingell said.

Appearing with Mr. Dingell was Douglass R. Gipson, DTE Energy's executive for power generation, who said the Detroit utility had been working night and day to bring all of its generating plants back on line.

As of Monday, all but two of its plants were operating at full capacity again.

“We're now moving to the next phase, and we're committed to finding out what happened. We've never seen this kind of a systemwide problem before,” Mr. Gipson said.

Company officials estimated that the outage probably cost it between $20 million and $50 million, but Mr. Gipson said DTE officials will begin studying the outage and the company's reactions to improve on its performance.



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