Cuomo introduces legislation to hold utilities accountable for storm responses

Rose Weldon
PSEG Long Island is being criticized by public officials for their perceived ineffective response to Tropical Storm Isaias. (Photo courtesy of PSEG)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed legislation on Wednesday to strengthen the state’s enforcement tools to “hold utility companies accountable” in response to widespread failures to prepare for and respond to the reality of more frequent and extreme weather events such as Tropical Storm Isaias.

If passed by the state Legislature, the new law would increase penalties to shareholders for failing to adhere to emergency response plans and other violations of the Public Service Law, regulations, or orders of the Public Service Commission.

The new law would also expedite and clarify the process of utility franchise revocation for recurring failures. In addition, the bill requires the commission to cap the amount of money that ratepayers contribute to salaries of utility executives.

Lastly, the bill would require the PSC to study whether private water suppliers like American Water on Long Island should come under municipal control. The majority of the state Legislature’s Long Island delegation joined the announcement, pledging to sponsor the bill and help ensure its passage.

“God did not give the utility company the franchise – the people of the state gave the utility company the right to operate,” Gov. Cuomo said in a statement. “If the people of this state allow the utility company to operate, the people of the state can revoke their right to operate. So you have a penalty or you have a revocation—but both are very hard to affect right now by the current law, and we need to change the law.”

The new legislation would also require that utilities extend enforcement mechanisms to other types of utilities such as electric, cable, television and water; give the state authority to seek up to $500 per household for consumer damages like spoiled food and lost medications due to extended outages, and create a plan for better communications to customers by utilities during an outage.

In addition, the bill requires the PSC to study whether private water suppliers on Long Island should come under municipal control in order to improve the delivery of water service to ratepayers. Recent concerns over the quality of water service and the management of private water supplies warrant closer scrutiny to determine if the public would be better served by a municipal entity. The bill would require the PSC to issue a report by April 1, 2021.

Those in the legislature representing the North Shore responded positively to the proposed legislation.

“Public water is a human right,” state Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) said. “For years, New York American Water has exploited Long Islanders with outrageously high rates and shameful business practices. I thank Gov. Cuomo for his leadership and partnership in the fight to stop private water companies from profiting off the backs of Long Islanders, and I look forward to swiftly passing this legislation. All Long Islanders are entitled to safe, clean public water.”    

“PSEG LI, Altice, and Verizon put Long Islanders through hell back in August when they completely failed in their response to Tropical Storm Isaias,” state Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-Great Neck) said. “It’s clear that we need strict guard rails in place to hold these utilities accountable for the failings, we need better consumer protections for our residents, and the State needs to have more flexibility to replace these companies if they’re unwilling or unable to serve the needs of Long Islanders in an emergency. I’m grateful for Governor Cuomo’s leadership in proposing new measures to do just that, and I will be fighting for their passage when I return to Albany.”

Long Islanders have too long been disadvantaged by being at the mercy of public utilities, cable and communication companies and private water companies,” state Assemblyman Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) said in a statement. “Enough is enough. This legislation, which I am proud to support, will provide needed enhanced protections to our citizens.”

Cuomo previously announced that the New York State Department of Public Service completed the first phase of its investigation in record time into utility preparation and restoration efforts related to tropical storm Isaias.

As a result, the Department sent Notices of Apparent Violation letters to four electric service providers — Con Edison, Orange & Rockland, PSEG LI, and Central Hudson — and telephone, cable and internet provider Altice-Optimum stating that they face steep penalties and must take immediate corrective actions so that similar failures are not repeated during the remainder of hurricane season. 

New Yorkers will no longer be bullied by utility companies who have long believed they are too big to fail,” Cuomo said. “The abuse of public trust by utility companies will not be tolerated in New York State. The penalty should be commensurate with the damage caused by the utility companies. By removing the caps on penalties and easing the path to franchise revocation, utility companies will be held accountable.”

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Rose Weldon

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