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Published: Thursday, 8/21/2003

U.S.-Canadian task force eyes outage riddle

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham cautioned against rushing to assess blame for last week's blackout until a joint U.S.-Canadian task force established yesterday completes its investigation.

In the end, however, he suggested the cost of upgrading the transmission grid in Ohio or anywhere else in the nation should be borne by those who benefit: the customers.

“I'm somewhat concerned about the kind of speculation that has gone on,” he said. “There are hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission grid in the affected area. There's over 1,000 power-generating locations. I think it's premature to speculate about what should happen if we might, at the end of the investigation, conclude that someone is to blame.”

Speculation has focused in recent days on Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., which saw unusual power fluctuations after several transmission lines went off line. The company did not sever its connection with the grid, a move some have speculated might have isolated the problem to the Cleveland area and prevented its spread across much of northern Ohio, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, and Canada.

Mr. Abraham met yesterday with Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Herb Dhaliwal in Detroit, where the two said the joint task force has begun reviewing the problems that led to the massive failure, assessing the security of the power grid that ties the two nations together, and determining how to prevent future outages.

Mr. Abraham placed no deadline on completion of the international investigation, but he said he hopes the investigation will end with “a complete and accurate picture of what happened.”

Named as members of the task force - co-chaired by Mr. Abraham and Mr. Dhaliwal - are Americans Tom Ridge, secretary of homeland security; Pat Wood, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Nils J. Diaz, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Canadians John Manley, minister responsible for border issues; Kenneth Vollman, chairman of Canada's National Energy Board, and Linda Keen, president of that country's Nuclear Safety Commission.

Mr. Abraham and Mr. Dhaliwal said others will have a voice in the fact-finding and recommendation process - including public authorities and utility executives in the affected states and the province of Ontario, as well as representatives from federal agencies.

Alan Schriber, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, said part of its own investigation will focus on why companies such as FirstEnergy, parent of Toledo Edison, and their regional grid operators did not see trouble coming, while Columbus-based American Electric Co. disconnected in time to prevent the problem from spreading farther south.

Mr. Abraham met with Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell before traveling to Detroit.

The governor has asked President Bush to declare an emergency in Cuyahoga County so the county and city could receive federal aid toward their $3 million in police overtime and other costs associated with their response to the blackout.

The governor cut short his vacation to Quebec to return to Ohio early yesterday to meet with Mr. Abraham. He chose not to immediately return to the state last week during the blackout, leaving the oversight of the state's response to first-year Lt. Gov. Jennette Bradley.

Mr. Taft declared a state of emergency for Cuyahoga County by phone so the Ohio National Guard could distribute water after the outage shut down the city's water plant pumps.

“I still had the authority to act as governor on vacation,” said Mr. Taft. “We also felt it was very important that I stay in constant communication. There was a real question, if I were to come back by airplane, whether I could stay in constant communication. We felt that was most important.”

Mr. Abraham made a pitch for Mr. Bush's energy plan, which has been held up in Congress in part because of its call for oil drilling in the Alaska Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“I would ask the people who have tried to deny us to develop energy in a 2,000-acre area, an arctic wildlife refuge, whether that fight is worth preventing an energy bill from moving forward,” he said.

He predicted passage of a bill this year.

Homer Brickey, Blade senior business writer, contributed to this report.



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