Utility manager defends storm response

| 14 Mar 2018 | 03:58

By Pamela Chergotis
— Steve Grandinali hadn't been home in 12 days before he finally returned to his house in Warwick, N.Y., on Tuesday. The general manager at Pike County Light and Power Company, a subsidiary of Corning Natural Gas Company, has been holed up in Pike County since March 2, when Winter Storm Riley hit. Ever since, his crews and contractors have been working feverishly to fix the myriad power lines that crashed to earth in a tangle amid high winds and heavy snow.
Grandinali takes exception to news reports and rumors that say the utility did not employ enough subcontractors or have sufficient expertise for the work. Residents and officials at the Milford borough meeting held three days after the storm praised the response of local first responders but blasted the response by PCP&L.
"We will go after the electric company (for) unacceptable service," said borough council president Frank Tarquinio, after listening to complaints from the audience.
He said Corning Gas is a natural gas company with only a handful of electrical customers and lacks the needed expertise in electricity to manage the system.
"We are their sole electrical customers," he said.
He and others at the meeting said they didn't understand why Corning Gas even wanted these few electrical customers.
Grandinali, an engineer who's been in the utility business for 40 years, said many of the reports circulating after the storm were flat wrong. PCL&P, until August 2016 a subsidiary of Orange & Rockland, still has a contract with O&R that has been renewed month by month and doesn't expire until April 30, he said. In addition, Grandinali said he asked another contractor, the Harlan Electric Company, to send crews to Pike County on March 4, about a week before Harlan was already scheduled to arrive.
Other contractors were called in as well, he said, including two crews from Nelson Tree Service and three MetroTek Electrical Services, plus more crews that arrived the first Sunday after the storm. He called in a track machine, specialized equipment efficient in setting poles. Another crew of environmental contractors came to clean up toxic spills of transformer oil, used in insulating electrical lines, which Grandinali said added to the complexity of the storm response. One transformer spilled at Route 6 and Schocopee Road, plus four or five other locations, he said.
All of the crews were union crews, Grandinali said, except for one pole inspector from Osmose Utilities Services. And their combined work succeeded in getting power back to all but 800 of the approximately 3,000 who experienced outages by the end of Saturday, March 3, the day after the storm. By the end of Sunday, March 4, they'd gotten the number down to the last, and toughest, 600 customers, which were the crews' focus through the rest of the week.
It was those customers "up in the hills" that were the most challenging to restore, Grandinali said — places like Malibu Trail, Moon Valley Road, Foster Hill Road, Christian Hill Road, Christian Hill Terrace, and Cummins Hill. Some of these rural roads are about the width of a car, he said. Getting workers and equipment into these tight spaces was a challenge, with workers parking their trucks on the main road and hiking in to problem areas. On Christian Hill Road alone, 20 to 30 trees had come crashing down, said Grandinali.
"Power expect to get power back immediately," he acknowledged. But he has to make sure his crews were getting the maximum number of customers back online as quickly as possible. That meant the one or two customers waiting at the end of a narrow and isolated road may have had a longer wait.
He said the utility has a plan: prioritize, isolate, and restore. But it takes only one problem to cause a delay, he said — a truck breaks down, a piece of electrical equipment fails for reasons unrelated to the storm, a downed wire catches fire. In such cases Grandinali can't send crews out to customers until the problem is fixed.
"I can't leave a burning wire," he said.
'The hometown utility company'The storm itself was exceptional, he said, with his crews not having seen anything like it before.
"I have, but they haven't," he said.
What was different this time is the weight of the snow even more than the battering winds. The trees and poles just couldn't take it, with even 100-year-old trees exploding Grandinali stressed that Corning is not some huge corporate entity far removed from its customers, but a small business not much bigger than PCL&P itself.
"We're the hometown utility company," he said.
The Corning CEO made several overnight trips to Pike County, he said.
Grandinali's office at 105 Schneider Lane in Milford has a staff of two customer reps and one planner in addition to himself. He said members of the public showed up there after the storm, and that he welcomes visitors anytime. He said he also communicated daily, by phone and text, with Tarquinio and Pike County Commissioner Matt Osterberg.
Other means of communication during this and any emergency is PCL&P's Facebook page and web page, he said.
Grandinali said the utility is drawing "internal lessons" from the experience.
"We will review how we did, compare it to our plan, and get outside feedback," he said.
And residents should review their response as well, he said. For the next big storm, make sure you have enough food and water and batteries on hand, he advised, and know where the warming shelters are.
"Storms are a process," he said. "You try to follow a plan."
PCL&P serves approximately 4,600 customers in Pike County, including the Townships of Westfall, Milford and the northern part of Dingman and in the Boroughs of Milford and Matamoras. PCL&P provides natural gas service to 1,200 customers in Westfall Township and the Borough of Matamoras.
Related stories:
"Storm-tossed Dingman residents use shelters": http://bit.ly/2Hl5QWQ
"Officials urge generator safety": http://bit.ly/2oY1het