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PSEG says it's ready for Elsa; not all are convinced

PSEG Long Island crew work on a utility

PSEG Long Island crew work on a utility pole on Route 25 in Cutchogue to restore a power outage after a storm. Aug. 4, 2015. Credit: Randee Daddona

All eyes will be on PSEG Long Island as the utility braces for the first big weather event in the wake of its recently patched-up agreement with LIPA that calls for new levels of preparedness, performance and transparency.

In a news release Wednesday, PSEG said it was ready for the first named storm of the season, which it said is expected to bring heavy rain and strong winds — enough, said a PSEG official, "to topple trees and bring down power lines."

PSEG said its employees and contractors are "prepared to respond and restore any outages caused by the storm as safely and as quickly as possible," with an unspecified number of extra crews on hand to help.

It’s the company’s first major statement of preparedness in the wake of a tentative, newly reached agreement with LIPA on June 27 that calls for new levels of staffing, communications, accountability and autonomy for the Long Island region in responding to storms and in day-to-day operations.

LIPA and PSEG are still hammering out a contract that could be put before a vote of LIPA trustees in mid- to late August. The tentative deal, which would settle a $70 million LIPA lawsuit against PSEG and tie $40 million of PSEG’s annual compensation to performance targets, is expected to be voted on by LIPA trustees sometime in August.

PSEG has been the subject of withering criticism from public officials, top LIPA brass and even Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo following its disastrous response to Tropical Storm Isaias last August, which saw more than 535,000 customers left in the dark, some for up to a week. Most critically, more than a million phone calls and hundreds of thousands of text messages from customers never got through to PSEG early in the storm, as PSEG storm outage computer and communications systems failed.

In the months since, PSEG has said it has largely repaired those problems and addressed LIPA’s complaints. LIPA until the June 27 agreement had been highly critical of even PSEG’s most recent claims of preparedness, noting that the company failed to comply with dozens of to-do list items it had requested and that it was using an outdated computer system with antiquated hardware.

PSEG says all systems have undergone upgrades, performance tuning and "numerous tests." Its president, Dan Eichhorn, said, "We are prepared and ready to respond."

Not everyone agrees.

Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who favors a fully public LIPA, said he was "cautiously optimistic" Elsa will peter out by the time it reaches New York on Friday. As for PSEG, he said, "No, I don’t have any confidence in them."

"Having a company that has failed us get another bite at the apple is disquieting and cause for a furrowed brow," Englebright said.

LIPA in a statement said it's "closely monitoring" the storm and PSEG's preparedness. "While there are still improvements to be made, PSEG Long Island’s communications and IT systems are in a much better place than they were last year," LIPA said.

Englebright said he’s currently "exploring all options" to hold LIPA and PSEG to account for the back-room deal that resulted in the tentative new contract, even after most speakers at public hearings called for LIPA to proceed with the fully public option and terminate PSEG.

LIPA Chief Executive Tom Falcone, once PSEG’s chief antagonist, last month said the new contract terms tentatively agreed to by PSEG would provide for the best contract LIPA has had in 22 years, with "ironclad" guarantees to hold the utility to account.

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