Panel gets Isabel outage answers

BGE tells Md. delegates that underground lines might not be solution

October 07, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Downed trees were responsible for most of the Baltimore area's 650,000 outages during Tropical Storm Isabel, representatives from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. told a House of Delegates subcommittee in Annapolis yesterday. But they said the company doesn't think underground lines would have lessened the impact.

"Undergrounding itself is not a panacea toward reliability," said Alexander Nunez, an Annapolis representative for Constellation Energy Group, which owns BGE.

About a dozen state and Anne Arundel County officials spoke at yesterday's meeting, originally organized by Pasadena-area Del. John R. Leopold after the Northeast's huge power failure Aug. 14 and a storm Aug. 26 that interrupted power to 93,000 Baltimore-area residents.

Tropical Storm Isabel, which left about 1 million Maryland residents in the dark at the peak of outages, made the meeting all the more relevant, Leopold said. Some residents were without power for more than a week.

He and seven other Anne Arundel County delegates questioned officials from departments as varied as the Maryland Public Service Commission and the Anne Arundel County Board of Education during the two-hour meeting.

"We're not here to assign blame," Leopold, a Republican, said several times before and during the meeting. "We're here to try to come up with some constructive suggestions."

The meeting provided a sweeping look at how the state, county and city of Annapolis responded - and are still responding - to Isabel's impact on everything from health to school preparedness.

Fran Phillips, Anne Arundel County health officer, said her department is urging reluctant residents to test their private wells. All but six of the 112 private wells that have been tested for bacterial contamination, most in South County, returned positive, Phillips said. But hundreds of others remain untested.

Michael Galvin, a supervisor with the Natural Resources Department Forest Service, said the summer's heavy rain left vegetation in the region "almost floating" before Isabel and accounted for much of the uprooting during the storms.

He recommended a more rigorous tree-trimming program that would leave top-heavy trees less susceptible to strong winds.

J. Mark Black, supervisor of schools security for the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, said Isabel has encouraged education officials to develop a hurricane policy and a plan of action for unexpected blackouts, such as the August outage that left New York City in the dark.

Other officials, including those from Constellation Energy, said they were preparing reports about Isabel's impact and were not ready to give specific answers to questions. Still, delegates asked them whether buried power lines might prevent blackouts of the magnitude caused by Isabel.

Nunez and Bonnie L. Johansen, a government relations representative for Constellation, responded that "undergrounding" is a complicated and potentially ineffective proposition.

"It gives people a false sense of security," Johansen told the delegates. Even communities where the power lines are underground rely on main lines that are above ground. "Somehow that power had to come overhead to get to them," she said.

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