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Council wants answers after storm

Some Charleston City Council members worry that recent power outages caused by Superstorm Sandy demonstrate a lack of reliability, but company representatives say they are working to improve service.

Chris Dodrill, at-large Republican, would like to meet with Appalachian Power representatives to discuss recent service interruptions and the long duration of the outages.

Dodrill also would also like to talk about right-of-way maintenance.

"I want to see what's being done about cleaning trees and branches out of the right of ways," Dodrill said. "I know they have a responsibility to maintain the rights of ways, and I'm concerned that it's not being done."

However, Appalachian Power officials believe they have kept rights of way clear and also are considering another preventative program, said Jeri Matheney, company spokeswoman.

Company representatives met with business owners in the Bridge Road area on Nov. 14, one of the hardest-hit communities in Charleston during the superstorm and the June derecho, to discuss reliability of service.

During that meeting, representatives outlined an initiative they would like to undertake that would reduce the number of trees that could damage lines, Matheney said.

Matheney said the company would like to replace large trees along the rights of way with shorter trees that do not grow tall enough to touch power lines if they fall, she said.

"This was done in St. Albans about a decade ago and it was successful there," she said.

However, Matheney said downed trees weren't the main problem during the two powerful storms that blew through the Mountain State.

One major problem was transmission issues, she said. During the October superstorm, three substations servicing the South Hills area went down, she said.

This is another issue the power company is looking into. The company has upgraded one station servicing the community so it can support a heavier electrical load, Matheney said.

The added capacity will allow the company to switch service from one station if it becomes inoperable to the station that could handle the extra load, she said.

The company also will install switches on the three stations so service can be rerouted between the stations automatically.

"That project should be done by the first quarter of the new year," she said.

Matheney did not have cost estimates for the projects.

Appalachian Power spokesman Phil Moye said the company is exploring a change in the right-of-way maintenance schedule.

The company will consider a four-year maintenance cycle for rights of way. Currently, foresters with the company survey areas and then cut problem trees and branches, he said.

The new system would be more effective but would cost more, and the company likely would have to raise customer rates, he said.

"We're trying to strike a balance between reliability and affordable rates," Moye said.

Moye was unsure how much rates would increase under the new program.

Many of the trees that knocked out power lines during both storms came from outside the rights of way, he said. Company employees actually performed right-of-way maintenance throughout many areas of the state in 2009-2010, Matheney said.

"We haven't had a power outage caused by a tree in a right of way since 2009," she said.   

Councilman Courtney Persinger, a Republican from South Hills, is also concerned about the reliability of the system in the city.

The power outages were especially hard on the elderly and businesses in the South Hills ward.

"It's a major problem," Persinger said.

He believes major investment in electrical infrastructure is needed. 

"It doesn't take a lot of sense to figure out that when you have trees growing up through lines, that the tree will wipe out those lines when it falls," he said.

Persinger said he understood that the company had a system for maintaining the rights of ways but it wasn't working.

Persinger lives in South Hills and was without power for about two and a half days after the recent storm.

Republican Brent Burton, another South Hills council member, was without power for four days. Burton is hoping for better communication between the company and individuals living in the affected areas.

"I don't know what can be done," Burton said. "I'm not an expert and I don't want to speak to that.

"But what I can do as a city leader is facilitate discussions between the company and my constituents," he added.

Democrat councilman Sam Minardi also represents a South Hills ward.

"I think it's obvious we have problems in South Hills," Minardi said. "But I also understand that these weren't your typical storms."

Minardi would like to speak to company representatives to make sure that the area is prepared going forward, he said.

"We have to do something to ensure that we're not without power for a week every time we have a large storm," he said.

Minardi was without power for two days.

"But my neighbors across the street didn't have power for a week," he said. "That's what's really concerning and I don't understand that at all."

Appalachian Power budgeted about $22.2 million for right-of-way maintenance in West Virginia during the current fiscal year. This is up from $16 million to $18 million in years past, Matheney said.

Company employees and contractors have trimmed 134,454 trees and removed 138,637 in rights of way throughout the state, she said.     

Contact writer Paul Fallon at paul.fallon@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817.    Follow him at www.twitter.com/PaulBFallon. 

 


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