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Redacted information irks PSC

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Public Service Commission Chairman Michael Albert got a bit snippy with attorneys at the start of last week's hearing on Felman Production's special power rate proposal.

After calling the hearing to order, Albert went on an extemporaneous rant about the amount of redacted and confidential testimony and exhibits submitted in the case.

One of the great features about the PSC website is that almost every document filed with the commission is posted online in near real time.

The only exceptions are documents that may contain trade secrets or confidential financial or personal information that would be harmful to a person or corporation if made public.

 A difficulty in covering the Felman case has been the fact that nearly all financial information contained in the filings, testimony and various exhibits submitted has been redacted or marked as confidential.

The attorneys and staff with the PSC, Consumer Advocate Division, Appalachian Power and other parties in the case get to see this information -- provided they sign a confidentiality agreement -- and use it to make their arguments against Felman's proposal, but their filings are similarly redacted.

Albert called the attorneys out for this last Tuesday.

 "In getting ready for the hearing and reviewing the data...there was an awful lot of data that was protected," he said. "There's a lot of it that is not trade secrets, and I think it should be out there.

 "We were disappointed by the extent of it," he said, speaking for fellow commissioners Ryan Palmer and Jon McKinney. "We even had things redacted in testimony that weren't redacted by Felman, which I don't understand that."

During last year's Century Aluminum special rate case, there were also several confidential filings that dealt with the company's internal operating financials.

However, because Century's rate was based upon the price of aluminum -- a publicly traded commodity -- the filings were able to go into great detail about what the special rate would be when that price was trading at a certain point.

Felman's rate, however, hinged on the prices of several commodities that are not publicly traded. Because Felman sources those using private contracts, their attorneys argued it would put them at a disadvantage if those prices were made public.

But Albert indicated that wasn't a good enough reason for the parties in the case to agree to make that information confidential.

"A lot of material that was redacted, some of it was just, 'Well, we don't want that out there' -- well, that's not the test," he said.

Albert told attorneys if they wanted the information to be kept private, they should have negotiated the special rate agreement directly with the power company and not brought the matter to the PSC. 

"We don't like closing hearings, we don't like going on camera (for confidential discussions)," he said. "It's viewed with suspicion by people and, in most instances, it's unnecessary."

Albert's rant helped influence the parties to negotiate privately for much of last Wednesday morning. While Felman was able to come up with an alternative rate plan, it wasn't one everyone could agree upon.

So now the case will move forward with the PSC. It will be interesting to see how much information the commissioners decide to include in their filing when they finally decide the case.


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